Try, try, try to cast rugby net wide

24th May 1996 at 01:00
With Rugby Union going professional, Bath knows there is much to learn from its league counterparts in the North, and that includes school and community work to build enthusiasm for the game among young people.

The Georgian city may seem to have little in common with a Lancashire mill town such as Wigan. But both are champions of their respective codes and both need to take the battle for youngsters' hearts and minds into their communities.

Tomorrow sees England's league and cup double winners in what used to be the amateur game play a return match with Wigan, the seasoned professionals and reigning league champions, under union rules at Twickenham. In the opening fixture the Northerners put 80 points on their union counterparts and nobody was left in any doubt about the work union needs to do to close the gap on league.

That extends to the youth activities of the Wigan club, which has a full-time schools liaison officer running league sessions in schools and encouraging pupil visits to Central Park. There the club offers a classroom and curriculum materials geared to exploiting the ground as a teaching base.

British Lion and England international Andy Robinson, who gives up his job as a teacher at Colstons Collegiate school, Bristol, at the end of this term to turn professional with Bath as a player and assistant coach, said the high profile that rugby union was starting to achieve would make a difference and more young people would be attracted - particularly as it now offered a career to those talented enough.

"We will be looking to create centres of excellence, similar to Wigan. We want to develop links with schools and get our players out coaching. At the moment rugby is very much a public-school game and we need to expand into comprehensives," he said.

But the motives are not merely altruistic. Home-grown players are cheaper than buying in established names, and a strong local rugby scene with mini and junior sections would help to identify future Bath first-team players at an early age.

That is a philosophy Wigan has long believed in. The club has 16 apprentices aged 16 to 19, who also pursue everything from degree courses to decorating qualifications - a useful fallback if they fail to make the grade in the game.

Rugby league is played along a narrow corridor across Lancashire and Yorkshire that follows the M62 motorway. Towns like Wigan are steeped in the traditions of league - it is the major sport played in schools and Wigan dominates at schools level as at every other.

Ray Unsworth, a coach at the club and its development manager, said: "Rugby league traditions in this area are such that kids' ambition is to play for Wigan. There is a history of playing rugby league rather than union. Other rugby league clubs shop here for talented youngsters."

What Wigan is now striving to do is further integrate itself into the community and push back the boundaries where league is played. The Pounds 20,000 prize for winning the Middlesex Sevens, a rugby union tournament, has gone to Wigan schools to help develop the game. "It's not about selling the game in Bath. For us even 15 miles up the road at Preston is virgin territory, " said Mr Unsworth.

Tracey Morris, the club's schools liaison officer, recently took four Wigan apprentices along to a taster session at St Marks's RC primary school in Skelmersdale, an overspill town near Liverpool. Pupils ran out wearing Liverpool football shirts and their knowledge of rugby was sketchy although some had heard of leading figures from both union and league.

Ms Morris, a former teacher, said: "Areas like this are still football-orientated, but there is a lot of interest and we hope that teachers from the schools will carry on coaching rugby league. We can give them further support if they are interested."

The coaching session, geared to fun rather than technical skills, went down well. Ms Morris left behind coaching videos and guidebooks and each child was given a ticket for a Wigan game.

Mr Unsworth said: "With big money now coming into rugby union there will no longer be players coming north to turn professional and we have to develop the game and encourage young people to play. These kids are not only future players, but future spectators."

He added: "Rugby union has now done what we did 100 years ago. Union will find all sorts of avenues open up in all aspects of the game. They will have to raise their standards.

"But I have no doubt teams like Bath will learn very quickly. Events like tomorrow's game have fired the imagination of supporters of both rugby codes."

Not only will the source of union players to league clubs dry up but he can envisage Wigan apprentices being poached by union teams. Already some league players have gone.

Scott Quinnel, whom Wigan enticed from the union game, has now returned to union with Richmond.

With rugby union going professional and rugby league switching to a summer season buoyed by millions from Rupert Murdoch, a new rugby era is dawning.

Many believe a hybrid game will develop, leaving just one code.

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