Fifteen men aiming to match the World Cup feat of '66. Will England's exploits revive game's flagging fortunes?

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The fifteen men chosen to represent England at this morning's Rugby World Cup final were not just handed the responsibility of fighting for the Webb Ellis Cup but of trying to resuscitate their sport.

Despite England's No 1 world ranking, rugby union in this country is in decline with less than one fifth of the population expressing any interest in the game, compared with a quarter in 1996.

In the past two years, 157 local clubs have folded and the proportion of the public that has played rugby in any form has tumbled to just 4 per cent.

Schools rugby is in crisis and is ranked behind dance and rounders as the 15th most- practised sporting or physical activity. Only volleyball has fared worse in schools during the past decade.

As they stood on the verge of becoming the first England team since 1966 to be crowned world champions, Clive Woodward's side had it within their gift to reverse that dire trend.

Terry Burwell of the Rugby Football Union said: "We are very confident that we can turn the success of the England side into long-term success for the good ... of the game." For Jonny Wilkinson and his colleagues, the personal stakes were even higher. Victory would not only ensure the players a place in sporting history but offer them the chance to realise earnings that would have been beyond the dreams of the previous England side to reach a world cup final, back in the non-professional times of 1991.

The marketing guru Mark Borkowski said Wilkinson and the England captain, Martin Johnson, were perfectly positioned to replace the "frail personalities" on the current celebrity A-list. He said: "Most people think there's a place for real heroes once again. It could lead us to examining something of the frailties of the icons that have no substance or content."

Compared with the unsavoury reputations of some Premiership footballers for indulging in orgies and partying to excess, England's rugby stars appeared to be relatively free of "debris". In spite of his shyness, Wilkinson and other stars, such as Ben Cohen and Josh Lewsey, are an advertiser's dream. Mr Borkowski said: "If they come back as sporting heroes then the world is their oyster."

Cohen's potential earning opportunities are a stark contrast to those that emerged for his uncle, George, when he was a member of Sir Alf Ramsey's football World Cup winning team in 1966.

George Cohen, who with the rest of the team was paid a bonus of just £1,000, became known as one of the "Forgotten Five" players who quickly faded in the public memory. A year after George Cohen was part of England's finest sporting achievement he was forced by injury to give up playing and dropped out of the game altogether. "Now that the football was over I had to make another move," he said in his autobiography. "The game was too hazardous and, at times, duplicitous." George Cohen had to wait 34 years before Buckingham Palace honoured him by appointing him MBE.

Things have also changed since England reached the rugby world cup final in 1991, only to be beaten 12-6 by Australia at Twickenham.

That was in the times before the game turned professional, when players' earnings were restricted to comparative loose change slipped into a boot or a brown paper envelope. Star players might be lucky enough to get a white-collar day job through a contact of their club.

But the introduction of professionalism in 1995, followed by the founding of the Premier League and lucrative coverage from Sky Television, has not delivered the bonanza that the game's chiefs had expected.

Season ticket sales at Zurich Premiership clubs are up by 12 per cent on the start of the 2002-03 season.

But with the exception of notable hotbeds in the South-west and the east Midlands - where the passion for the game rivals that in South Wales, the lowlands of Scotland and Ireland - English rugby cannot compete with football.

Jez Mann, producer of The Rugby Club on Sky Sports, said that the current interest in the English national side was not extended to the lower levels of the sport. "There are a massive amount of people who watch England but out of maybe 10 million there are perhaps only one million who support a club," he said. "Quite frankly, England are good and that's one of the reasons why they are popular."

The capacity for interest in a sporting discipline to fade as soon as the English or British participants start to under-perform is well documented. The fascination with the previously obscure sport of curling during last year's Winter Olympics is already starting to fade in the memory. The six million people who stayed up into the night to watch Steve Redgrave win his fifth Olympic gold medal in 2000 did not translate into a popular stampede to the boating lakes.

But the RFU and, indeed the Government, is attempting to capitalise on the "Wilkinson Factor" to revive an interest in a sport that has, since it began its life at Rugby School, never managed to throw off its elitist reputation. The Department for Education and Skills is working with local rugby clubs to stimulate interest in the game with a resource pack called "Tackle Learning". In one exercise, children are encouraged to go into a dressing room and learn "communication and motivational skills" by engaging in "Rousing Team Talks". The Schools minister, Stephen Twigg, not in possession of the facts, said: "We are clearly a nation that like rugby."

For an important niche market of the population, this certainly holds true. Chris Hayward, a media analyst with Zenith Optimedia, said that as many as 30 per cent of ABC1 males (the advertising industry's favourite target group) could be in front of ITV1's coverage of the game this morning. "This tournament has been pretty lucrative for ITV," he said. "Its average take per 30 seconds will be in the region of a quarter of a million pounds." ITV hopes that the audience will be in excess of 10 million (some sources suggest 12 million), which is a large turnout for a 9am kick-off. But even optimists do not suggest that the figure will top the 13.6 million who tuned in for the 1991 final.

This might well be English rugby's finest day, and possibly the concluding episode in the most outstanding team ach-ievement in British sport for a generation. But even with its wholesome heroes, rugger is destined to live in football's shadow. Yesterday, as Woodward's boys stood within touching distance of greatness, the lead story on Sky Sports News was informing viewers that Jermaine Jenas, the 20-year-old Newcastle United midfielder, had signed a new contract.