Diverse World Cup squad can change perception of rugby union in England

Whenever a World Cup squad is announced it elicits a lot of emotions: joy for those who have been picked, anger for those who have not, excitement for those of us eagerly anticipating the start of the competition – and perhaps a little bit of worry in this case at the risks Eddie Jones has taken. But personally, the overriding emotion I feel at the moment is pride. I’m incredibly proud that these 31 players get to represent our country as the most diverse England World Cup squad ever selected.

More than a third of the players in the squad are from BAME backgrounds. There are so many different cultures but they are all united by the purpose of representing England. It is a true reflection of modern society and what pleases me most is how it has come about naturally. There has not been any box-ticking or anything like that, this is Eddie’s best 31 on merit.

Rugby has always been seen as a white, middle-class sport in England. That was the case when I played the game. I believe it still is. I cannot say it was something that bothered me during my career – that’s the beauty of team sport, you put everything to one side because you’ve got a job to do as part of a team – but I just love the way that things are changing. It has not been forced or manufactured; it has just happened organically.

Eddie often says to judge him on the World Cup and, of course, he is talking about success in terms of results. But, with the huge increase in exposure, in terms of the number of casual rugby fans tuning in, this incredibly diverse World Cup squad can succeed in changing the perception of rugby in this country and I just love that. We’ve seen it with the cricket team, we’ve seen how both the men’s and the women’s football teams have inspired at recent World Cups and I hope Eddie’s squad will do the same with upwards of 10m people watching. Put simply, the more diverse the squad is, the more relatable it is to the wider public.

Eddie’s remit is simple: to pick the best players, and that is regardless of where they or their parents were born. That goes without saying but I do think Eddie’s own heritage and background helps, as does the fact that he has coached Australia, South Africa and Japan. He’s a well-travelled man with so much experience and he understands different cultures.

It is inconceivable a squad will come together and win the World Cup without being totally united and Eddie knows that. You need that shared mindset because team culture is absolutely everything in sport. That starts with the relationships you build with one another.

England squad


England players pose for a photo with school children during the World Cup squad announcement at Blaise High School in Bristol. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA

And this squad is not just diverse in terms of ethnicity. Look at two of the headline names in the squad – Lewis Ludlam and Ruaridh McConnochie. Both have such inspirational journeys to a World Cup squad. The usual route to international rugby in this country is to start playing the sport at five, go into an academy system at 11, progress through the club, play at all the age groups and then play for England. I’m not sure you can say that about those two because this time last year Ludlam was fighting for a contract at Northampton. The Olympic sevens medallist McConnochie has had more XVs experience at an amateur level than professional. Their selection brings a lot of hope to a lot of people. It makes them so likable, because they’ve had to work so hard.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t have concerns about the unknown quantity of some players, simply because we do not know how they will cope in a competition as intense as the World Cup but the last thing I am going to do at this stage is criticise someone or write them off. This will be Eddie’s fourth World Cup and I do believe that, when you combine that with the experience of John Mitchell, it will help to offset the fact that there is not as much experience in some departments of the playing squad.

Finally, a word for those players who just missed out. They can go into mourning for a week or two, or even longer if that is what they want to do, but ultimately that will not help. I narrowly missed out in 2011 and, speaking from experience, I would say you have to get yourself ready for if and when that phone call comes. It may never come – it didn’t for me because there wasn’t an injury – but I used the anger at missing out as motivation to prove people wrong. Myself, Chris Robshaw and Danny Care were all overlooked for that tournament but we hit the ground running at the start of the season and ended up as Premiership champions. It can be a driving force if you use the disappointment in the right way.

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