Rugby, in its Union guise at least, has never been viewed as a truly mainstream sport. Bit too posh, maybe. Always, because of the game’s fabled roots, finding itself wrapped up in the English class system, even now. Total nonsense of course (Ben Morgan, posh? You must be bloody joking…), but it’s an impression that continues to stick.
Interim coach Stuart Lancaster even called for a bit of what he referred to as “working-class humility” on the eve of this Six Nations campaign, asking his England charges to take inspiration from rugby league.
Like tennis, rugby is generally seen as a game for the more affluent, suburban members of society. And yet the sport (just like tennis again) has a fine tradition of outreach work and charity events, involving what the newspapers like to call the “less enfranchised”.
Football in the community schemes are well established, and tend to generate plenty of publicity (naturally enough) but they shouldn’t overshadow social inclusion programmes like the recently launched Hitz, which aims to give inner-city kids an introduction to the game, and encourages them to continue with the sport and “utilise rugby’s unique ethos”.
This doesn’t mean necking 10 pints of Old Peculiar and dropping your trousers in public. Rather, the idea is to embrace sporting values, learn something about team spirit and having respect for your opponents - with a bit of fitness and diet advice thrown in.
So, school kids in London boroughs like Hackney and Southwark get to scrum down with each other (or play more basic, easier games of tag rugby) at a local sports centre, or on trips out of the city, with the help of sponsors and partners including the RFU and, notably, the Metropolitan Police.
Coaches are all voluntary (you need at least a Level 1 Rugby Union coaching award or equivalent if you fancy applying), and players make the occasional appearance to bring a bit of buzz and glamour to proceedings (yes, even Ben Morgan).
As well as Hitz, organisations like Tackling Numbers - helping kids with maths through rugby - are launched with the support of Saracens skipper Steve Borthwick, while the award-winning Phoenix Project from the Bristol Rugby Community Foundation offers troubled youth a range of schemes, including Bright Sparks and The Inferno Programme.
Northampton Saints have been involved in initiatives to combat child obesity and help adults (maybe kids too) give up smoking and Bath Rugby’s Community Foundation, established back in 2003, is big on learning foreign languages.
It’s all good stuff. And of course it can work both ways. No-one’s necessarily expecting any of these kids to don an England shirt one day, but if the game can gain a foothold in communities where previously it was completely off the radar, rugby can start to enjoy the benefits of a wider support base.
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