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Some Good News for School Rugby

by Neil Rollings

For the great majority of schools who play Rugby, the season is in its final days. Few indeed maintain a two term programme through the teeth of the winter any longer. The weather may not be better after Christmas, but a little sporting variety helps the season pass. And games like Soccer and Hockey don’t require as much lying in the mud.

It’s not an easy time for school Rugby – or the coaches who are running it. Safety concerns, and bad news stories, abound. In previous eras, the challenge was to get 15 boys to score more points than the school down the road: this is now the easy part, compared with the demands of endless compliance, head injury concerns and nervous parents. Singing on the bus returning from the match has been replaced by checking the seatbelts and confirming the return time.

But it’s not all bad news. Despite predictions to the contrary, many boys continue to love the game. The regular routine of training and playing provides a high point of the Autumn Term for them. Weekend contests are eagerly anticipated, and the camaraderie and teamship still enrich young lives. ‘Playing with my mates’ retains an internationally rewarding currency, and the structural inter-dependency of Rugby makes this more significant than in other games.

The good news is that the players who are driven by the game love it as much as ever. They (and their parents) are able to see past the risk assessments and Sunday Times publicity, and are intuitively aware that the benefits outweigh these risks. Parents who were themselves positively impacted by the game continue to value the memories and friendships that last a lifetime.

Coaches of pre-maturation Football and Hockey tire of advising players to ‘spread out’. In Rugby, physical proximity is part of the game: science tells us that ‘close clustering’ amplifies the social cohesion generated by moving in synchrony with others. And that inter-dependent collaboration produces the ‘co-operation high’ that activates the brain centres connected with reward and human connection. Collective joy enriches life and enhances happiness.

The schools’ game should not be confused with the professional version. The RFU has robust data measuring risk levels throughout the game: this clearly demonstrates that school age players are at significantly less risk. At Under 13 and below, it is likely that no game has any greater risk profile than any other – and that the playground is the most injury-prone environment for children.

The season just finishing has, once again, provided amazing experiences for many players, parents and coaches. Lifelong memories and friendships have been forged every week, and a sense of belonging, identity and self esteem have flourished. It has been a vehicle for developing skill, connection and commitment. In the best environments, it has been a force for good across the school, reinforcing values and disciplines.

There never was a golden age in which all boys loved Rugby. Historically, schools have hidden some pretty shabby provision behind the iron curtain of compulsion. Resistance to this goes back to the nineteenth century. There is an irony that, at a time when the game has never been better coached, safer or more player centred, it attracts greatest negative publicity. The fact is that the game appeals to a proportion of players. That number probably oscillates on either side of 50% depending upon age and environment. That is no different from any other subject in schools. In most Rugby-playing schools, the game continues to thrive, providing imaginative coaching and creative competition for those children who enjoy and value it. The days of the conscripted players are over, and everyone benefits from this. The game is finding a new niche.

Many other games thrive in niches of various sizes. Some are shrinking, others expanding. That has always been the case. The future for school Rugby is to accept this, as the club game does. The fact that more adults play club Football than Rugby does not prevent either game from flourishing, or improving the lives of its participants. Neither has to erode the other to succeed. Sport is not a zero sum game.

Rugby may be finding a new niche in the school games programme, but it still has a lot to offer many boys and girls. Just not everyone. Accepting this reality, and focusing on a high quality experience for those who love the game, is not a defeat. It’s a re-adjustment. School Rugby can continue to stimulate lifelong enjoyment and satisfaction – as it has for 200 years. It must focus on doing this ahead of trying to make the disinclined dislike it slightly less. Rather, to make those who love it, love it more. By making the experience better and better.

Maybe reports of its death are premature.