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Rugby seeking new ground in England
« on: October 13, 2007, 06:57:24 PM »

RWC: Rugby seeking new ground in England

Saturday October 13, 2007
PARIS - The sport of rugby union has been doing its best in its homeland of England in recent years to shake off the belief that it is just a middle-class game and a sport for 'posh' boys who can't play football.

That the perception exists is hardly surprising.

Rugby takes its names from Rugby School in central England where, although this has been challenged by several historians, pupil William Webb Ellis - the man after whom the World Cup trophy is named - is supposed to have picked up the ball and run with it during a football match.

Although a private school in that it is not run by the state, Rugby and similar schools such as Eton and Harrow are collectively known as 'Public Schools', initially because that distinguished them from private tutors.

Confusing? Quite possibly, although it does help explain how a game where you run forwards but advance the ball by passing it backwards came into being in England of all countries.

Rugby's claim to be a 'people's game' suffered a setback in 1895 when, following a dispute over whether players in clubs in the north of England, many of whom were from a working class background and could not always afford time off to play rugby, should receive compensation payments for injuries received while playing.

A strict amateur ethos had been at the heart of rugby since its inception but the breakaway of 20 clubs led to the creation of what was to become the Rugby Football League and with that the 13-man code was born.

But there were and are pockets of the country where rugby union retained widespread support with the south-west, as with south-west France, a notable stronghold of the game.

For example clubs such as Gloucester, where England captain Phil Vickery, educated at a state school, made his name, have long drawn heavily on the local community for players.

Up until the 1980s, international selection for England was often a haphazard business. It led Welsh players to joke that "if England get organised they will be dangerous". Eventually, they did.

The introduction of a league system for the country's leading clubs in the 1980s and the advent of professionalism saw England start to make the most of its large player base with the national side of the 1990s increasingly successful in both the then Five Nations and on the world stage.

Now, with the Rugby Football Union, England's national governing body for the game and the top clubs running their own academy systems, player talent is sought out from an early age.

The RFU also run a nationwide system of community development schemes which seek to bring rugby to areas of the country, such as inner city London, where the sport has had little previous impact.

What has also helped change perceptions in England is the success of its world champion side.

England's run to Saturday's World Cup semi-final against hosts France has boosted the RFU's 'Go Play Rugby' campaign which the governing body said on Friday was on course to meet its target of bringing 6,000 adult players into the game - a six percent increase in participation.

It is now more than 40 years since England won the football World Cup. Their repeated failures have led frustrated sports fans to embrace rugby union as was seen by the huge numbers that took to the streets of London to celebrate the team's 2003 World Cup triumph in Australia.

Meanwhile, some traditions die hard. Matchday programmes for internationals at Twickenham, England's home ground, and the England World Cup media guide still list the schools the players attended.

Agence France Presse
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