The Rugby Union World Cup begins this weekend. I would like to think that rugby clubs across the country will use the tournament as an opportunity to get more people interested in the game, but I’m not holding my breath.
In the mid 1990s I had a colleague who was a massive rugby fan and couldn’t comprehend my lack of interest in the game. Eventually he persuaded me to attend a game between Edinburgh and Glasgow schools. I couldn’t help but notice that only one of the 30 boys who played in that game attended a state school.
Twenty years on and things don’t seem to have changed all that much. Of the 31 players in the England World Cup squad, 20 attended fee paying schools. Last year an Ofsted report found that 61 per cent of professional rugby players had been privately educated.
Clearly the sport of rugby has an image problem. It is perceived, not unreasonably, as a game for post public school boys. Rugby also needs a broader international appeal. Of the 20 nations competing in the World Cup, 13 are English speaking.
There are some parts of the country, such as South Wales and the Scottish Borders, where rugby does have a broad general appeal. But in most parts of the UK rugby still has a very middle class image and most clubs do too little to try and reach other sections of the community.
The current issue of PR Week has in interview with Lawrence Dallaglio, the former England international who is now a partner in an ad agency that is promoting the World Cup. Worryingly, Dallagio makes no mention of legacy or of widening the appeal of the game.
The fact that the World Cup will be shown on ITV rather than on a subscription satellite channel such as Sky should guarantee healthy viewing figures and bring the sport to a new audience. It is important that everyone who is inspired by the World Cup to take an interest in the game is able to do so. For that to happen, rugby clubs need to shed their elitist past and open their doors to everyone.
At its best, rugby can be an exciting and dramatic spectator sport. It should be enjoyed by everyone; we shouldn’t allow it to be a preserve of the privileged few.