Britain rediscovered its sporting pride last year in quite spectacular fashion with the London Olympics, which Mayor Boris Johnson hailed as the start of “a golden decade of British sport”. While it was hoped that this “decade” would be concluded with a FIFA world cup, England have still won the rights to the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, with several games to be played in Sale, and the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup. England will again expect, with the latest odds at the bookies 5/1 in League and 4/1 in Union for them to lift the trophy. But for the Rugby Football Union, the managing body of rugby union in England, the main aim of the event is to create a lasting legacy, promoting the sport in England like it hasn’t been since they brought home the Webb Ellis Cup back in 2003.
As part of this drive, they’ve sent a touring party around the country to promote the opening of some seventy-five touch rugby centres by the end of this year, and another hundred the year after. To help them with this, they’ve brought together some rather unique individuals to create an exhibition rugby team, with a twist. Drawn from the realms of parkour and choreography, some of the most skillful athletes and dancers in the country have merged to form rugby’s answer to the Harlem Globe Trotters: The Untouchables.
So it was that on a bitterly cold morning in Albert Square I was to be found at the side of a piece of hallowed Twickenham turf surrounded by inflatable walls, awaiting the arrival of this super team. Already there was England Women’s twenty three times capped Vicky Fleetwood:
“Everyone can get involved, all ages, so it’s a really good sport in that respect. It’s great for fitness and skills, and they’re starting to promote it in schools now- it’s getting a lot more promotion, which is great. If you want to get involved, just get in touch with your local club!”
As the day progressed, many innocent passers-by were lured onto the pitch to try their hand, all enjoying themselves in the sunshine that eventually showed up around eleven. And then, the perfect promotion opportunity: a school day trip. As a rugby fan it’s always a treat to see enjoyment of the sport in young people, and here were a batch of youngsters eager to learn. The class of year sevens got individual time with the Untouchables who passed on their tips and tricks, which lead to one boy performing a catch behind the back I’m sure I could never have managed. All were given links to the new touch rugby centre and a free O2 water bottle to boot.
For the more experienced rugby players, the famed Martin Bayfield challenge from the BBC Six Nations coverage emerged twice during the day- just imagine a giant cardboard cut-out of Martin Bayfield and all you have to do is pass the ball through the hole where the hands would have been. After hearing that England scrum-half Danny Care had only managed one in the allotted sixty seconds, I was feeling confident of impressing. In reality, I got a brutal reminder of why I played in the forwards: par with Care; one clipped in off the lip in the last second. Meanwhile the guy I was lined up against nailed sixteen…or so he said…
But the special guest I was keen to meet was Sale Sharks very own Rob Miller. An Under-20s England star, he’s touted as one of the exciting prospects of the future and could perhaps be key to Sale avoiding relegation from the Aviva Premiership this season. As a Sharks fan, and having seen him play live at Salford City Stadium, I hoped he’d be the perfect person to help promote rugby to Manchester.
“We’re trying to get as many people involved in the sport as possible, which O2 are doing a great job of- there’s tournaments and prizes to take part in and hopefully we’ll get loads of people playing rugby. Touch is a fantastic and simple way of getting into the game, there’re no line-outs, scrums, and no contact so it’s a safe route for youngsters. The Untouchables with their street-dancing and free-walking skills have a great display of skills with the ball and without so keep an eye out for them on tour! There’s a lot of rugby played in Manchester and in the North-West, if you want to get started, the RFU advertises a lot of touch rugby tournaments online in the summer, which is a great way to stay fit in the summer, and take it from there”.
All said, it was a fantastic day of exhibition for the sport and with six legs left of the tour (at the time of printing) I’m hoping we’ll see a lot more youngsters brought into the family of rugby. If the Untouchables can kick on to turn England to the way of the oval ball the RFU will be well on their way to building that legacy. They resume touring after the conclusion of the Six Nations, with England on course for their first Grand Slam in ten years, which can only help their cause. Manchester: mission accomplished. Next up: Portsmouth- catch them if you can!