Published on November 4th, 2015 | by Daniel Pellegrini
England’s poor show hinders grassroots game
It’s not every day that you get a World Cup winner’s medal put around your neck for pitch invading. Teenager Charlie Line left the Rugby World Cup final at Twickenham on Saturday with the medal of Sonny Bill Williams for doing just that.
What a moment – but what a shame such moments were not created by England. It was a tournament of firsts. New Zealand, the first three-time winners, and the first team to retain the title. But for England? The first host nation to be dumped out in the pool stage.
After being left with a tournament to host rather than compete in, English rugby lovers could only sit back and wonder at the quality of the All Blacks, a resurgent Australia who dashed their dreams early on, and a powerful South Africa.
Such was the lack of inspiration from the hosts that it’s difficult to see what the national team can do to inspire a generation to play the sport. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – and they blew it.
Westcombe Park RFC in Orpington, Kent, is a family club with a ‘kids first’ ethos, playing for fun, with volunteers putting in huge amounts of time and effort to keep youngsters interested in continuing to play rugby.
In the build-up to the World Cup, four new boys joined their u11s team. When England were knocked out, one of the four did not bother coming back.
At the age of 10, youngsters face a huge amount of choices and rival attractions, so to keep them in the game is difficult. But it’s at the ages of 17-21 where the Rugby Football Union us having a major headache.
Big drop-off point
‘I think we’ve just got to keep working at it, we just got to keep encouraging people to play, encouraging people to come back if they’ve left or encouraging them to continue when they come to these delicate years 17-21,’ said Des Diamond of the Kent County RFU.
‘The other thing we work hard on is to try and bridge this gap when they leave school and go to university. What competitions do they get involved in? Is it just a first team and there’s a clique that run the first team? If so, there’s no opportunity to play.”
Hugh Godwin, rugby union correspondent for The Independent, confirms that those post-school years are the most challenging.
‘That’s a big drop off point, they know that, they recognise that, all the numbers tell them that. How do you make somebody stay involved?’ he said.
“We were taking £1,000 to £1,500 over the bar when England were playing, we dropped to £250 maybe £300 – it was a massive difference”
‘The big tactic is holiday time, with Christmas festivals – back at their original club or school. Alright, so you’ve gone away to do your studies or a job, but your heart is still where you started, back at Blackheath, Westcombe Park or wherever. They need to give people an opportunity to come back.”
The attraction of rugby in England may well have taken a hit due to the national team’s poor showing – but it does not just affect interest in the game at a playing level. Investment in local clubs also suffered as soon as England’s fate was decided.
“You had companies that wanted to jump on the bandwagon, but it stopped straight away,” said Westcombe Park volunteer Michelle. “Funding was cut off and streams stopped soon as England were out, or they’d exhausted their money – there’s no more now.”
England’s embarrassing early exit didn’t stop the RFU making a healthy World Cup profit – £40m according to reports – but the loss of a home focus definitely trickled down to local level.
The World Cup was supposed to be about pulling the players and community together to rally behind not just their national team, but more importantly, their local club. It was meant to be a time when the grassroots could really take advantage. But the window of opportunity was cut short.
“We were probably taking between £1,000 to £1,500 over the bar on a night when England were playing, we dropped down to £250 maybe £300 – it was a massive difference,” said Michelle.
Some people may wonder what all this has to do with inspiring people to play. Clubs all over England had four years to promote themselves in the build-up to the tournament. Money was invested at grassroots level, meaning better facilities, pitches and equipment, to grow the sport.
But the bleak reality is the fact that as eager as they were to get involved, companies have been just as quick to stop investing in the game.
“World Cup or not, we continue promoting the game week in, week out, season after season”
“Rightly or wrongly, people are expecting a nice pitch, a nice changing room, a changing room for girls as well, a changing room for the referee – much better facilities all round,” said Hugh Godwin.
“We need girls to be playing rugby too – they love the game, but you can’t turn up and be changing in the boys’ changing room.
“Go along to most rugby clubs and they’ve been transformed from what they were 30 years ago. That’s down to money from the RFU, which comes itself from England matches. It’s made things better but still, ultimately you’ve got to want to play the game and have the chance to play. And that’s pretty difficult to lay that on in such a short space of time.”
Des Diamond of the Kent RFU doesn’t believe there was a contingency plan for England having failed to live up to expectations.
“You just hope the whole event will be spurred by England’s participation and success, but you have to make do with what we’ve got,” he said.
“World Cup or not, we continue promoting the game week in week out, season after season – it’s a constant battle. It’s the same for all sports; you’re competing for players, so the more attractive you can make your game look, the better. Obviously, rugby’s just lost that bit of attraction.”
If the national term were not successful in inspiring the grassroots game, it appears it’s left to local coaches to pick up the pieces.
The challenge that they and club volunteers now face is to keep youngsters excited about the game in England.
Otherwise, those players of the future may well grow up having rugby heroes who wear the colours of the nations who lit up the Rugby World Cup – rather than the one that hosted it.