Following England’s defeat to South Africa in the Rugby World cup in Yokohama, the point was raised that the England squad, although more diverse than ever, is still dominated by privately educated players. Boris Johnson commonly cites ‘Rugger’ as one of his favourite sports, and for good reason, it’s a sport which is quintessentially played and watched by predominately wealthy, white and private-school attending men. So what can be done to diversify the pool of which Eddie Jones has to pick from?
The problems hark back to the creation of the sport. In 1823, supposedly, William Webb Ellis of the private Rugby School in Warwickshire picked up the ball in a match of football and ran with it. Thus the game developed from this point. As the sport grew in popularity amongst the upper echelons of society, many working-class people from Northern industrial towns also decided to play. However, wealthy private school-run teams managed to outlaw payments to players from poorer backgrounds creating a rift. The game then diverged into two paths: Rugby league, is a faster paced version of the sport that matured in the North-East of England; whereas Rugby Union, whose rules are now used for the vast majority of the world, blossomed in the Southern Heartlands and Home Counties. The systemic blocking of working-class individuals from playing the sport has unfortunately remained to this day in one form or another.
Although the current England Rugby Squad is twice as ethnically diverse as the population of the UK as a whole, the vast majority still attended a fee-paying school at some point in their educational careers. Comparing this to an overall 7 per cent of the population attending private schools, there is a gross void in the path to professionalism. For example, fly-half Owen Farrell attended St George’s School in Harpenden which charges well over £12,000 per year for its boarding fees. Or take Piers Francis, centre, who studied at Kent College charging up to an eye-watering £35,000 per year. Seeing as so many have taken the private school route to have an easy access into the world of professional rugby, it makes it incredibly difficult for those of working- or middle-class backgrounds to even hope of having such an easy route in.
One of the core issues is that the RFU see tournaments as a key recruitment ground. The St Joseph’s College Rugby Festival is ‘one of the most prestigious tournaments in schoolboy rugby’, and unsurprisingly 75 per cent of the teams in attendance are from fee-paying schools. From simply being good enough to play in a schools team you could easily find your way to stardom, and although skill is obviously needed, surely it isn’t right that bank of Mum and Dad is as much a factor in going pro as pure talent?
Comparing Rugby to football, we can see that only 5 per cent of the England side is made of private school attendees — much more in line with the country as a whole. This is mostly down to the fact that state schools don’t have the resources to teach more than one sport, so many choose to side with football.
But the real question is, what can be done to level the playing field? Well, the RFU has tried to kick-start rugby in the state system by introducing it to 750 schools, mostly in traditionally poorer areas. It claims, ‘More than 10,000 young people have joined a club’ as a result of this drive. The main reason schools cannot play rugby is due to significant budget cuts under the austerity programme of the Conservatives. This has left them with a limited amount of funds which can only really suffice for academic studies and little else. A boost in funding could allow schools to have the resources to partake in more physical activities such as rugby. But realistically, even this is not enough to break down the years of systematic exclusion by the elites, and greater change must come from elsewhere.
A complete rebranding of the sport is needed to promote it as an open, tolerant and progressive game fit for any ethnic background, gender or social class.