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  • 07 May 2015 00:00
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England Gets Rugby-Fever

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As the World cup draws closer, it is not just in the rugby heartlands that they are beginning to feel the excitement.

Twickenham, as the home of rugby, may be gearing up to embrace the sport’s biggest tournament, but on the other side of the capital, the Olympic stadium – built for athletics and destined to be a football ground - is also quietly preparing to get in the oval-ball act. London's Olympic stadium may not be a traditional rugby ground, but the buzz around the game is palpable.


Former Bath, Saracens and England prop David ‘Flats’ Flatman has noticed the increased interest in rugby and shares his views of the enthusiasm he has witnessed:

"You kind of expect that kind of a buzz in rugby cities, like Cardiff and Exeter. But when you arrive in Newcastle and the guy who is fixing the cabinet comes over to you to talk about rugby, you realise there’s a proper enthusiasm in places that are normally dominated by football.”


Building that enthusiasm, with the prospect of high-calibre sport on the horizon, is one thing. But as everyone connected with the Olympic stadium knows, maintaining it after the competition is gone is another matter altogether. However Flats is confident that, long term, this World Cup is going to have a lasting effect.


"There are bound to be studies that come out, or bits of research, 15 minutes after the final whistle of the World Cup final, and say there are only seven more children in Europe playing rugby than there were on Tuesday” he jokes.


"But I think what it needs is a concerted effort to make as much noise, constructive noise, about the Rugby World Cup as possible.”


At the heart of the ‘legacy’ debate, as it was with the Olympics, is the discussion over grassroots sport, and it’s something that Flats’ tour has been focused on.


"We went to a club in Leicester, with Mike Tindall and Ben Kay, and this is a club, with nothing,” he recounts.

"They have absolutely nothing. Part of the World Cup legacy is they will receive upgrades to their facilities. Now, at Wasps or Harlequins, that means 5,000 extra seats. For them that means a shower.

Not shower rooms. A shower. They don’t have one. All this sort of stuff, that’s the grassroots.”


Of course, as well as investment and infrastructure, what this World Cup will bring, Stuart Lancaster will hope, is an England team playing with confidence in front of their own fans.

For the World Cup to be the inspiration it has the potential to be, England’s performances will matter.


"A lot of the buzz and the legacy around the World Cup will be how England play,” admits Flats.

"How far they get is one side of it, another side is how they perform.”

"They didn’t do enough against France (in last month’s Six Nations) because they didn’t win, but they were fantastic, and everyone loves it.”

"So they want to win, first and foremost, but how they do so will have a big impact.”


Playing attractive rugby is not just a question of attitude, it also depends on personnel, and that is why the former England prop is so glad to see the return of one of the country’s most exciting players, Danny Cipriani.

Cipriani may have a reputation as a ‘pretty boy’ but, for Flats, that can’t mask the fact that he is a top player.


"We talk about inspiring young people, who do you think the kids "are” in the playground now, playing rugby?"

A lot of them will be saying, "I’m Danny Cipriani”. I thought he deserved to get back in the England squad and I’m glad they picked him.”


So, if England play at their fluent best, and the grass roots get the funding they so badly need, could the rugby World Cup produce a new generation of players and fans?


Flats thinks so, but only if the tournament is made accessible.

"There’s a big responsibility of commentators and pundits, without dumbing things down, to simplify things a bit,’ he explains.

"Offer clarity, and make people who might be first time watchers, understand it more."


If that understanding can join the enthusiasm that is clearly building, England could have a tournament with lasting legacy – and not just in south west London.

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