The England Rugby Football Union is to launch a nationwide programme to "win the hearts and minds" of parents in a bid to confront mounting concerns about the risk of injuries associated with the sport, the Telegraph has revealed.

The multifaceted campaign will form a key tenet of the RFU's new four-year strategic plan as the governing body seeks to fight back against the negative publicity generated by the rising number of high-profile injuries in the professional game and the recent call by a professor for tackling and contact to be banned from schools because of the risks to children.

The RFU will also seek to rejuvenate the struggling grassroots game over the next four years with the new plan, entitled Game of our Lives, putting a greater emphasis on investing in facilities and empowering club rugby than any before in the professional era.

Central to this - as well addressing the fears over injuries - will be the RFU's aim to increase female participation in the sport from 25,000 to 50,000 over the next four years and up to 100,000 over the next decade.


The strategic plan, set to be unveiled later this month, will also include the aspiration to recruit 400 new female coaches and 400 female referees during the next four years while an urgent priority is to be given to investing in facilities such as female changing rooms.

The RFU hope that growing impact and influence of the growth of the women's game will "transform" perceptions about the risks of injury as the governing body tries to replicate the success of a campaign by Australian Rules Football in the 1990s to encourage greater parental involvement - particularly mums - to reduce fears over injuries.

Andy Cosslett, the RFU chairman, in an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport, strongly rebuts claims that the risk of injury in rugby is too dangerous but admits the governing body has to put its "best foot forward in demonstrating that we care about this".

"We are very wedded to the central idea that rugby union remains a very powerful force for good," said Cosslett, who replaced Bill Beaumont as RFU chairman last October.

"There are injuries in rugby, we know that, it is a contact sport. Everyone grows up knowing that. But we certainly don't accept that it is at a too high level.

"There is an injury risk in playing rugby but the benefits of the game substantially outweigh the risk. That said, it is our job and in our best interests to make sure we are doing everything we can to take that risk down and reduce the level of injuries. It is important to us and matters to us a lot, particularly at the younger end, that we are thoughtful about their health and that we are managing their progression into the game."

The RFU has received a letter from the four UK chief medical officers that rejects the claims by Professor Allyson Pollock that tackling should be banned from school rugby and states that participation does not pose "an unacceptable risk of harm".

However the RFU's own research last year revealed that one-third of parents in their sample expressed a concern about their son or daughter playing rugby and Cosslett said the new strategic plan would attempt to address those concerns.

The governing body has spent nine months compiling their new plan, and included widespread consultation from every level of the game and Cosslett's direct experience of the AFL's successful campaign when he spent seven years working in Melbourne has shaped his ideas on how English rugby can benefit by embracing parents.

"When I went to Australia in the early Nineties, Aussie Rules was challenged and they had some concerns about whether or not they were able to grow participation and they were very concerned about the growth of rugby because it was an international game and they thought there would be a natural gravitation," Cosslett added.

"The AFL did a massive amount to develop their relationship with families. They have this incredible thing called 'Auskick' where they manage five to 12 year-olds, every Friday night, Saturday morning and Sunday morning and the parents are part of it.

"They encourage parents to take coaching certificates to get involved and host barbecues and it has become a social event for the weekend for many Australian families. That is also part of the way they have been able to go into other parts of Australia where the game was not strong, such as Sydney.

"We don't have much to fix in rugby but we have an opportunity to do more and we can really put the family at the heart of the game by doing a lot more.

"This strategy will bring that to life. It is about the clubs. What they did in Aussie Rules the major drive was to get participation of the entire family of parents involved. We need to do the same."

The theory is that as parents become more familiar with the benefits of the game, they will have a more balanced view on the risks of injury. Cosslett points to cycling, a sport with a relatively high risk of injury but has enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent years, as an example, because families are more "comfortable" with it as a sport.

Cosslett also hopes that the increase in the number of females playing the game will have a direct impact.

"One of the really interesting thing for us is that the growth of the women's game over the next five to 10 years is going to transform this understanding," Cosslett added.

"We now have 25,000 regular players and another seven or 8,000 who play touch rugby. We have got a plan to try to increase the number of female players up to 50,000 in the duration of the next four-year plan.

"Beyond that we can't see any reason why we can't take that up to 100,000. Those 100,000 will bring friends and people who become volunteers.

"As that cohort of women grows and becomes intimately involved in the game and if many are younger and then they become mums, they are going to feel differently about the game than probably their mum or their mum's mum because they have just been involved in it.

"In 10 year's time that infusion of women into the game will start to quite radically change the profile of the game because the understanding of what is involved, the teaching and the injury risk. The fear factor generated by the unknown will change and more people will flood into the game because of what it stands for."