Wednesday 17 July 2019

England has six weeks to win a new generation for the sport

Past glories have been squandered by the RFU, will 2015 be different?

England players arriving before the World Cup Warm up match at Twickenham Stadium, London
England players arriving before the World Cup Warm up match at Twickenham Stadium, London

OWEN GIBSON

The record is not an auspicious one. The failures echo down the years, damning those who made such bold claims on their behalf as victory on the pitch failed to translate into lasting benefit off it. Even when England win, grassroots sport often loses and any potential knock-on effect to participation numbers is squandered. It did not happen in 2003 or, for that matter, in 2005. Or, as is rapidly becoming clear, in 2012.

After England's dramatic last-ditch Rugby World Cup victory in 2003, immortalised in the recent film Jerusalem, the ball was dropped. While the heroes of that final continue to milk their triumph, the half life of the glow of victory was brief - within short order the Rugby Football Union had squandered any halo effect, at elite and grassroots level.

After England won the Ashes in 2005 for the first time since 1987 and for the last time on free-to-air television, the queues at local cricket clubs soon dwindled and the moment was missed.

The picture is more complex when it comes to the Olympic Games of London 2012, and the bar set higher because legacy was such a central part of the pitch, but flatlining participation figures and swingeing local authority cuts do not add up to an opportunity grasped.

There are mitigations. It is hard to plan ahead if you do not know you are going to create momentum. Who could have guessed Clive Woodward's men would win in 2003 in such breathless fashion, or that the 2005 Ashes would be among the greatest Test series of all time? But when the party is yours, there are no excuses.

So the next seven weeks represent a huge opportunity for rugby union in England - to underline its virtues, to broaden its appeal beyond its heartlands and embed itself in young minds. In a crowded sporting landscape, dominated by football, it is one the sport cannot afford to miss.

Sebastian Coe, the former London 2012 organising committee chairman who has come under fire over the legacy he promised and others have failed to deliver, is uniquely placed to judge the challenges. "If we're being critical, we didn't make as much as we could have done from England winning the World Cup in 2003. The golden rule is start early," he says. "This is a fantastic opportunity. There is massive, massive potential. The other thing is to make sure you have a fantastic event. You're not going to get a response if the event is a bit of a damp squib."

Rugby is blessed in many ways. Twickenham has become a licence to print money and sponsors fall over themselves to reach its audience. For all the residual fustiness, an enlightened approach to television contracts has maintained a mainstream audience for international rugby union. But for all that the homespun values of rugby at grassroots level from the Borders to the West Country mitigate against the sometimes boorish image of the sport in the Home Counties. Rugby union still has a perception problem. It will never have a better chance to shift attitudes than the looming frenzy, taking place mainly at weekends and in prime time.

Yet from the point of view of taking the game to a new audience within the stadiums, it may already feel like an opportunity missed. The need to return at least £80m to the governing body World Rugby, meant a natural bias towards the big stadiums in London and Cardiff. The drive to make this a truly national event is heartfelt but is not necessarily reflected in the spread of matches or in ticket pricing.

Arguably the bigger opportunity exists among the millions more who will be watching on television. Debbie Jevans, the former London 2012 executive who quit as head of England Rugby 2015 earlier this year in circumstances that have still not been fully explained, used to insist lessons had been learned from the Olympics. Ian Ritchie, the RFU chief executive, repeatedly insists everything is in place to take advantage of rugby's six weeks in the sun.

"There are no excuses. We've already invested in facilities, people, coaches, balls, all those things," he said earlier this year, promising he would measure success as "more people playing, more people volunteering, more people connected to rugby".

So much of the RFU's rhetoric since 2011's World Cup meltdown in both the boardroom and the dressing room has been aimed at rebuilding English rugby's sense of itself. Stuart Lancaster has been key, embodying (sometimes arguably overplaying) his own link with the grassroots epitomised by his rise from comprehensive school PE teacher to England head coach.

"I have to connect the England team back to the community because that is the lifeblood of the game. I don't say that because it is the right thing to say, I say it because I believe it," he says in Neil Squires' new book The House of Lancaster.

One of the huge strengths of the game is its network of volunteers and clubs, which have historically sometimes felt estranged from Twickenham.

Ritchie and the RFU chairman, Bill Beaumont, appear to recognise this in their attempts to rebuild those links. But they must be encouraged even further and persuaded to look outwards, building links with schools and the community. Certainly Steve Grainger, the RFU's director of rugby development, is widely regarded as one of the very best in the business. The All Schools programme over which he presides has had some impressive results in getting the sport into mainstream state schools.

But there is much further to go. Research published a year ago by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) found that the majority of players in rugby union's Premiership went to fee-paying schools.

There are also parallel programmes to promote touch rugby, sevens, beach rugby and other new forms of the game. They will be key - even at junior level, rugby can still sometimes feel too straitjacketed.

Can rugby take the white heat of the next seven weeks and translate that into a momentum that will carry into another key moment when sevens takes its bow as an Olympic sport in less than 12 months' time? For that to happen, England will have to perform on the pitch and the RFU will have to show it has learned the lessons of the past off it.

Observer

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