World Cup can lure youngsters away from football – and their iPads.
SPORT can do remarkable things for a country’s self-esteem. Remember the warm afterglow that followed the London Olympics? The sheer relief of that Ashes triumph in 2005? And how about the moment, a dozen years ago now, when Johnny Wilkinson’s drop-goaled England to Rugby World Cup glory?
The focus of most rugby followers in this corner of the country is currently fixed on the fight for Super League spoils as the season nears its nail-biting crescendo.
Yet the contest for the other code’s Web Ellis Cup, which got under way last night, is justifiably being billed as the planet’s third biggest sporting event. And, unusually for a world cup, England actually have an outside chance of winning it.
Regardless of whether the red rose blooms or wilts in the tournament, the next six weeks carry the potential to be genuinely transformative for the sport in this country – both union and league.
The rival codes need to grasp that the other is not the competition; if they are to flourish then their first task is to simply encourage more youngsters to pick up an odd-shaped ball.
That means luring them away from football and – more pertinently in today’s gadget-obsessed society – the games console, smartphone and iPad.
It helps that the Rugby World Cup’s biggest games will unfold at four of the world’s great sports stadiums – Twickenham, Wembley, the Olympic Stadium and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, bringing a genuine sense of occasion to proceedings.
But crucially the tournament will be also taken around the country, the staging of matches from Exeter to Newcastle and Leeds’ Elland Road ground ensuring that there will be a game on the doorstep of every child.
The games here in Yorkshire – Italy against Canada and Scotland taking on the USA – may not be major box office, but this is a golden opportunity to be part of something truly special, an event that is unlikely to come round again for decades.
It is also a chance to ignite a lifelong passion for sport in the young. At the time of writing, a few tickets are still available and they won’t break the bank. It would be a shame to let such an opportunity pass us by.
And there is another selling point that’s not to be sniffed at: rugby is a fine advert for the way sport should be played – and supported.
Rival supporters swap banter in the stands. It is anathema to players to exaggerate an injury. Referees are treated with respect rather then mere annoyances to be berated and intimidated from first whistle to last. Only the captain from each side can address the official and he must do so as ‘Sir’.
Then there is the emphasis on building the right team ethos. Any school games teacher worth his salt should draw upon the values embodied by the likes of the All Blacks and Stuart Lancaster’s new England to impress upon their young charges the importance of selflessness, self-discipline and comradeship.
Lancaster, the national side’s Leeds-based head coach, came to The Yorkshire Post offices some months ago to share his blueprint for transforming the national side from the arrogant, ill-disciplined rabble they were at the last Rugby World Cup in New Zealand four years ago, when they tossed dwarves in a local bar, jumped off ferries and crashed out at the quarter final stage.
He has painstakingly restored the sense of pride in wearing the red rose of England, presenting the players with testimonials from their family, friends and previous coaches on what it means to see them playing for their country.
Lancaster – a decent man with sound principles – showed us a short film that few outside of the England playing and coaching circle get to see.
Featuring recollections from players of yesteryear, it is a genuine lump-in-the-throat look at what it means to don the white shirt. Speaking about his team this week, the head coach said: “We want to show people that they genuinely care, that they’re going to do their best and be able to look in the mirror at the end of the tournament with no regrets. We want to try and connect the team to the country and vice versa.”
Stirring victories and a long run in the tournament will aid this process and hook a new generation. But just as important is the fact that the Rugby World Cup will be screened live on terrestrial television, with England’s outings occupying prime-time weekend slots.
What a refreshing change from the attitudes of the likes of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the International Cricket Council and golf’s custodians at the R&A.
Their decision to chase the money by signing up with Sky may bring short-term gain, but the plummeting participation levels in cricket are proof that these lucrative deals are the recipe for long-term pain.
It is a mistake that governing body World Rugby must not repeat.
But for now we can sit back and enjoy the six-week feast of rugby to come. This Rugby World Cup promises to be a belter. Would it be greedy to hope for another moment as heart-stoppingly glorious as that Johnny Wilkinson drop-goal?