Saracens aim for hearts and minds

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Diane Spencer reports on efforts to create young rugby fans

Make it safe! Make it fun! No, it's not the title of the latest sex education manual, but the slogan for the Saracens Rugby Club's efforts to foster an interest in the sport among local children.

It could be an uphill struggle in Watford - better known for Elton John's football team -whose Vicarage Road stadium is now home to the Saracens club, which has leased the ground for the next five years.

The club, one of the country's oldest, moved from Southgate in north London when rugby union turned professional, and it found it needed a bigger ground to get a return on the investment in its star players.

Saracens' new home, with 22,000 seats, is second in capacity to Twickenham. So the club would like to make not only Watford, but all Hertfordshire residents keen followers of the game.

One of the club's main missionaries is Tim Lawler, the community development officer. A former Rugby Football Union youth development officer who still plays at scrum-half, Mr Lawler wants to "generate a habit" of watching andor playing the game.

To this end, he contacted all the schools in the area offering his services. Martin Woodward, head of physical education at Westfield comprehensive, close to Vicarage Road, was one of the first to take up the offer.

His 700-pupil school was not an obvious rugby candidate as its catchment area includes one of the most deprived estates in Hertfordshire, it faces competition from nine grant-maintained schools, and has an pupil intake of 14 nationalities.

"In terms of league tables, we like to think of ourselves as a value-added school," he said, dryly, but added that this was a verdict echoed in a recent Office for Standards in Education report.

The school does boast a large playing field and enthusiastic children of the kind Saracens wants to attract, as it is keen to shed the sport's elitist image.

Mr Woodward is delighted with the club's programme as it is geared to the national curriculum for all ages, abilities, and gender. Younger girls join in, but are taught separately in Year 9.

Mr Lawler, who takes about three sessions a week with Mr Woodward, teaches them the basic skills of running, changing direction, passing the ball, touch tackling and a mini-version of the game.

"We complement each other; it's a new face and approach and he adds a bit of glamour for the kids," said Mr Woodward, who is also a rugby fan.

Rugby has a reputation as a dangerous sport and the Saracens' scheme is designed to minimise the chance of injury. The emphasis is on learning the skills of the game and there is no "hard contact". The children touch rather than tackle each other and scrums are not allowed.

In addition to the free coaching, children see the real thing, as the club gives away tickets to schools for home matches - girls are keener than boys. And they have the chance to meet the stars, such as Francois Pienaar and Philippe Sella, who are contracted to visit schools and clubs.

Westfield wants to expand its sporting facilities with a Pounds 3 million lottery bid for a dual-community-use sports hall and Astro-turf pitch.

The school is eligible for 90 per cent funding because of its deprived catchment area. Watford council has agreed to supply the rest and manage the community operation.

Saracens are also hoping for Pounds 1 million funding from Kenwood Electronics, one of their main sponsors, and the Government-funded Sportsmatch scheme, to enhance their community programme.

"We're top of the Premier League, local businesses have given us a positive response; but the club has to give something back. Our flagship is our community programme," said Mr Lawler.

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