RFU chase £723m to spread their gospel

Government urged to fund game's future
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The Independent Online

Having run into another cul-de-sac with the clubs, the Rugby Football Union are pushing ahead with their most ambitious plan yet - the promotion of the game on a scale never seen in this country before. The RFU have raided their bank account to spend £105 million on the new South Stand at Twickenham and are hoping their new initiative will be paid for by the Government. They want £723m over 10 years.

With the country apparently becoming a nation of oversized couch potatoes, the Government have set a target of 70 per cent of people to be involved in sport at least five times a week by 2020 and have proposed a partnership with governing bodies. If targets are met, money will be provided.

With the help of schemes like tag rugby for children, the numbers playing rugby in England have risen to 2.26 million, an increase of 37 per cent, inspired in part by the country's World Cup triumph in 2003. The RFU invest £20m annually in the community game, but that is not enough.

Of the £723m, £605m would be spent on club facilities (changing rooms, clubhouses and pitches) and £118m on coaches, referees, administration and marketing. The RFU say they can achieve 80 per cent growth over 10 years, with 500,000 new players in clubs alone. The outcome would be 500 million extra hours of activity at a cost of £1.21p per hour. With the help of Deloitte & Touche, the RFU havedone their homework, although the timing of their report, Fit For Rugby, has coincided with the national squad's biggest casualty list in history.

"For every Jonny Wilkinson or Lawrence Dallaglio there are hundreds of thousands who play the sport purely for enjoyment," says the report. "Ability is not the primary criterion; it's the playing that counts. These individuals will probably never play at the highest levels, but the fact that they play at all delivers benefits to the public purse."

The RFU argue that £72m a year over 10 years is a low price to pay, set against the £8.2bn a year that physical inactivity is estimated to cost the economy. A quarter of the population is obese and getting fatter, and even a 10 per cent reduction would save £600m a year. They also argue that if kids played rugby there would be a fall in anti-social behaviour, at least off the pitch.

Whether any of this can be delivered is another matter. Britain's track record is rubbish and the whole system needs radical reform, but with London getting the 2012 Olympic Games, the Government have seen the flame and at least bought themselves a kit bag and a pair of trainers.

However, central funding is so complicated, fragmented and arbitrary that nobody in the land understands it. There are more than 400,000 people employed in sport - that is more than in agriculture - and the Government's income from it is £5.5bn. Expenditure? Less than £1bn, leaving them with an annual surplus of £4.8bn.

Governing bodies in sport, including the RFU, are taxed on their investment in the grass roots, a situation described by the report as "inequitable" and "anomalous". The same could be said of the discrepancy between public investment in sport in England (£36.10p per head of population) and other countries. In France it is £109.70, Finland (yes, Finland) £83.80 and Canada £66.40. The only good news is that we are ahead of Germany, who spend only £29.90.

Here, the Government's priority in funding is to museums, galleries and libraries (43 per cent), heritage (19 per cent) and the arts (17 per cent). Sport gets six per cent of the cake.

So, in 14 years' time the Government want to see the vast majority of the population regularly involved in sport. Fat chance. In 2003 only 37 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women took part in "any meaningful physical activity". Meeting the target would require an increase in participation of about 100,000 people a month. Still, the RFU say they are up for it and can deliver their end of the bargain. "Sport unites the nation in celebration and hope," says their report, "in a way no other activity can."

The only problem is that rugby at the elite end remains divided. "A breakthrough is needed to find a solution to the club-versus-country problem," admitted Francis Baron, the RFU's chief executive. "To ensure the clubs have a sound future and England a successful team, both sides need to give up entrenched positions." Of that there is no sign.

The RFU say they have come up with a number of ideas, including a franchise system of clubs that would do away with promotion and relegation, but that Premier Rugby had vetoed the lot. "It's easy to say what you don't want," Baron lamented. "Frankly, I don't know what they are prepared to talk about. We're in a cleft stick."

At their last meeting the clubs agreed to withdraw opposition to the Test against the All Blacks on 5 November. No date has been fixed for the next meeting because Tom Walkinshaw, chairman of Premier Rugby, is in Australia. The prospect of breaking bread with Walkinshaw prompted Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the RFU management board, to declare: "Churchill didn't sit down with Stalin by choice." No wonder the RFU were happier to talk about Fit For Rugby.

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