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Sweet chariot is not just for toffs

Youngsters from state secondaries are queuing up in their thousands to wrest the oval ball from the clutches of public schoolboys.

Neal Smith reports

Thousands of teenagers were signing up to play rugby this week, after becoming hooked on the sport following England's World Cup win.

The Rugby Football Union intends to capitalise on last week's victory with a 5 per cent increase in the number of players of all ages by the end of next year.

It will be targeting state schools and people who may never have had a chance to play the game.

This week, boys and girls from 15 London state secondaries practised and played at Harrow rugby club in Middlesex.

"These young people have never had a chance to play the game and we hope this will encourage them to take it up," said Ian Taplin, a development officer for the RFU.

Rugby is widely viewed as a private-school sport but, of the 3,000 secondaries affiliated to the RFU, just 250 are from the independent sector.

The RFU now wants to sign up another 200 secondaries by the end of 2004.

Its "Emerging Schools" strategy will give teenagers aged 13-16 the chance to try rugby union with specialist training from qualified coaches on 72 dates, at 58 locations.

The RFU also hopes to increase the numbers playing non-contact rugby by 15 per cent and the number of youth and adult teams with a qualified coach by 20 per cent.

Terry Burwell, the RFU's community rugby and operations director, is confident that it can exploit the surge in interest in the sport after the World Cup victory to "develop the game in all sections of the community".

The RFU predicts a 20 per cent increase in turnover as a result of England winning the World Cup which will enable it to increase investment in the sport, particularly at grassroots level.

Meanwhile, Sport England has invested pound;8 million of Lottery money to establish and fund 14 regional rugby academies around the country.

But the picture for rugby is not all rosy. Nationally the number of clubs has fallen in the past two years from 1,537 to 1,480.

And some schools have been reluctant to offer the sport because of the threat of compensation claims as a result of injuries. One private school was successfully sued for pound;100,000 after a boy sustained injuries to his neck and ligaments.

The RFU has dismissed litigation concerns. It said there was no evidence to suggest that fear of being sued had caused a decline in the game's popularity within English schools.

It also said it was unworried by the number of school playing fields, saying that "touch" rugby did not need to be played on grass and that schools had access to fields.

The Government aims to use rugby to stimulate and enhance wider learning in both primary and secondary schools. Its "Tackle Learning" scheme will see schools visiting clubs where they will work through rugby-related problems.

Stephen Twigg, the minister for schools, said: "We are clearly a nation that likes rugby, and are doing brilliantly on the international stage. This scheme uses the nation's love of the sport to help bring education alive for pupils."

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