The challenge facing
rugby in schools
by Neil Rollings
When the teams lined up for the Rugby World Cup Final in Japan last year, observers could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a sequel of Lord of the Rings.
Enormous, unnaturally muscular men, many hirsuite and tattooed, and of forbidding appearance, the accompanying mascots provided an uncomfortable contrast with what normal children look like.
After 20 minutes of that game, one player had been knocked unconscious, another had dislocated a shoulder and a third concussed. The casualties had been evacuated by plentiful medical attendants as the crowd rose to its feet to applaud the reluctant removal of the combatants. Sensitive mothers might have watched on with some concern and concluded that this is not a game suitable for their children.
Comprehensively defeated by the crushing power of the South African scrum on that occasion, England head coach Eddie Jones had clearly re-evaluated what it takes to be successful in international rugby and, for his team’s next game – against France in the Six Nations – he promised “brutal physicality.”
Despite the fact that this was spectacularly unforthcoming, the sensitive parents probably winced again. Is it really a game where the winners are those who can display the greatest brutality?
Rugby in schools is under unprecedented pressure. There are fewer boys playing - especially in the sixth form – than ever before. The risk lobby has been effectively mobilized. Schools have accepted that it is illegal to compel pupils to participate in contact rugby and the RFU has clarified that they would not advocate this.
Despite this, many schools maintain a commitment to the game and continue to believe that it has a positive place in the education of a significant number of pupils. They devote considerable resources to ensure that the game is well-coached, that there are plentiful opportunities for competition and that medical provision is better than at any time in history. The standard of the best teams has probably never been higher and the final rounds of national competitions produce some breathtaking encounters.
The school game needs all the support it can get. It also needs a shop window that displays all that is best about the game. It is therefore doubly disappointing when Lewis Ludlum, an England player interviewed before the Calcutta Cup game, declared of his Scottish opponents “We hate them and they hate us. It’s going to be a war.”
This is not the language of a sport which will engage a wide following in education. It is the vernacular of radicalisation. Ludlum’s paymasters on that occasion were the Rugby Football Union, a national governing body whose widely published core values specify respect, discipline and sportsmanship.
Other departments of the RFU have done industry-leading work to promote positive values in the game, improve safety protocols and produce player-led rules and initiatives to ensure positive experiences for young players. They then find that this has been undone by the ill-judged rhetoric of their fellow employees.
Rugby in schools can be better than this. It can continue to be a game of skill and evasion that has a place for all shapes and sizes. It can inspire and promote commitment, selflessness and teamship to provide lifelong memories of playing with friends. Physical contact will be one feature of this game and the courage and resilience it demands will help players develop positive personal qualities which will transfer beyond the playing fields. The school game will include physical contact, but not be about it.
The game continues to have a place in the sports programmes of many schools because dedicated teachers ensure that they convey all that is good about it. They make it as safe, exciting and enjoyable as possible. They transmit their love of the game to the next generation. They do it despite endless bus journeys, early starts on Saturdays, long days at sevens competitions, practices in the fading light and the miseries of the British winter.
They endure the flaky commitment of some parents with stoicism, put a positive spin on one-sided games, attend first aid courses and accompany injured players to hospital. It is this dedication that ensures that the game survives – thrives even – despite the increasing pressures. For most it is a labour of love.
All of this good work can be undermined by thoughtless remarks from people who have benefited most from the game and should know better. One of the RFU’s core values is teamwork. Perhaps all those who love the game should collaborate to promote all that is best about it.
Neil Rollings is the managing director of Independent Coach Education, the UK’s biggest provider of training, recruitment and advisory services in school sport. He is also chairman of the Professional Association of Directors of Sport in Independent Schools