England’s rugby team takes on Wales in Cardiff on Saturday in the most highly-anticipated clash between the sides in years.
While all eyes will be on their head-to-head battle for the Six Nations championship, off the field they are competing for another prize.
Rugby authorities in both countries have launched efforts to increase participation in state schools as they vie with football and other pastimes for children’s loyalty.
England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union are throwing money and resources at the challenge. The RFU, gearing up to host the 2015 world cup and wanting to shake off rugby’s elitist tag, wants 750 more state secondaries playing rugby by 2019 and will give each one £10,000 to spend on coaches and equipment.
“Because of [the world cup] we have got a really good opportunity,” said Sophie Goldschmidt, the RFU’s chief commercial officer. English rugby, she added, should be “more inclusive, innovative and progressive”.
The launch of the RFU’s All Schools project – whose patron is somewhat incongruously Prince Harry – is recognition that rugby’s public school roots have stymied more broad-based participation.
“Rugby shouldn’t be class-conscious,” said Simon Halliday, ex-England international and a qualified teacher. But getting inner-city state schools to play rugby is “a big ask”, he admitted, pointing out that in many areas the main burden of attracting children into rugby falls on local clubs.
Welsh rugby has traditionally been less riven with class divisions. All but two of its 23-man squad for Saturday’s game attended state schools, compared to 14 from England’s.
But while the country’s challenge for this year’s Six Nations title reflects the strength of top-level rugby in Wales, some worry about its health lower down the pyramid.
While the WRU is increasing its revenues and profit, attendances at once great clubs such as Llanelli and Pontypridd are waning. Some rugby fans worry about the counter-attractions of Swansea City, the thriving Premier League football club, and fear the sport is losing its grip in Welsh schools. They were the breeding ground for the players of the great Welsh teams of the 60s and 70s.
“In the golden era, Barry John and Gareth Edwards were grammar school boys,” said Professor Peter Stead, a Welsh sporting and cultural historian. “The comprehensive education system greatly diluted rugby.”
Mr Roger Lewis, chief executive of the WRU, said reports of a grassroots demise in Welsh rugby were “greatly exaggerated”.
But armed with £27m to plough into the game’s development, including 52 full-time community rugby staff working with clubs and schools, the Welsh governing body has begun a raft of initiatives to try to rekindle passion for rugby among children.
The WRU has got “a foothold back in the schools”, said Mr Lewis.
Such initiatives are “absolutely essential”, said Prof Stead, because of rugby’s role in national pride. “I would say football is as popular as rugby in Wales, but rugby has a unique Welsh identity. There is a need to provide some kind of structure for physical fitness and for the essence of rugby to be taught.”