School Rugby — Forget Concussion for a Moment

This is awfully embarrassing to admit, but I really was a late developer. I was born in August, which put me at an immediate, physical disadvantage to some of my school friends who were almost a year older than me. This was compounded by the fact that puberty came late, too… as if been a teenager wasn’t hard enough.

Because of this, I basically avoided sports throughout all my school years only taking part in compulsory games when I had to. My enduring memory of rugby practice was a guy, let’s call him Peter, getting the ball and actively seeking me out in the defensive line and running at me. He’d utter some magical words — I had no fucking clue what he was saying — before hitting me very hard in the face with an open palm and trampling all over me.

This continued for an hour. Peter got the ball, uttered his incantation, ‘uruly, uruly, uruly’, before smashing me in the face, trampling all over me and scoring a try. My weakness was compounded by my shame at not being able to tackle him.

The other thing was that Peter was a bully. Back at school I relished winding him up, because the one thing about being a summer babe is that you what you lack in stature you can make up for in lip. Now, this did occasionally get me a fat lip but out in the real world I could more or less hold my own. On the rugby field, Peter got to do what he already did pretty well — use his size to knock about kids who were smaller than him.

Later in my teenage years I started to box, do martial arts and also play rugby league, which would quickly become my favourite sport, although I did also like cycling and walking. Once I started playing league I learnt about a player called Ellery Hanley and all of a sudden, years later, I understood that Peter was not running around saying, ‘uruly, uruly, uruly’ but rather, ‘Ellery Hanley Handoff’.

I’d have suffered less from the Ellery Hanley Handoff if I’d have been the same size as Peter (for the record, these days I am much bigger). This is probably the first lesson we can learn from New Zealand, where they organise rugby based on weight and not based on age. In my case, I’d have played from a much younger age if my experience was something other than getting smashed in the face and repeatedly stood on.

After 10 years of playing rugby league and later union, and having a wonderful time doing so, I retired thinking I’d never play competitive sports again. However, I found myself living in Amsterdam and ended up getting roped into a park game of touch. Later, a few of the more organised lads, namely Mike Berry and Bradley Lang, got the idea of going to a tournament in Paris. We were absolute beginners, relying on what we knew from rugby, which unfortunately is not enough to win games of touch.

However, down in Paris we got a taste for the game and the next thing I knew Bradley had been on the internet and we started to practice actual touch moves. Later, we had the good fortune of a number of great coaches passing through Amsterdam, namely Piet Vis, a New Zealand international; Jon MacDonald and Ross Alexander both Scottish internationals and Chris Lim. At the same time, people like Mike had gotten better and better at the game. Long story short: that team from Paris ended up becoming the backbone of the Dutch men’s team. Later our group would grow to include both a women’s team and a mixed team and our outreach activities extended to both senior and junior rugby teams.

These days, Mike and I are on our last legs, as we both head towards 40. We are, however, both grateful of extending our careers by ten years and we are both much better rugby players.

Both touch and rugby league teach you to find space, to run straight. Typically, English rugby union training teaches rucking and mauling. This is clear in the bish-bash-bosh of our international teams where Wales, Ireland and England play a power game based on size. This simply does not work against countries like Australia and New Zealand whose school children focus on touch and are separated based on size.

So, I do think we should reevaluate how we teach rugby at schools but not only because of concussion but becuase it’s boring, exclusive and produces a predictable and flat game at the highest levels.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t tackle. I now realise that picking yourself up out the mud is one of the ways rugby teaches character. As a thirteen year old runt, I was not ready for that lesson. Luckily for me, I learnt it shortly after and was given one of my life’s greatest gifts: an amateur sports career that lasted 20 years, took me to different parts of the world, gave me two best-men for my wedding and even once laid a turd on my pillow whilst I was sleeping. (The turd incident, you can guess, was when I played rugby union and not league or touch.)

So my thoughts on the current debate are this: we should change how we teach rugby not only because it would be safer but because it would lead to a better international game as well making rugby more inclusive for all shapes and sizes and both sexes. The two changes I would make would be: organise by weight and introduce touch to all schools. In my opinion, at least 40% and maybe even 50% of all rugby training should be touch training. And I say this not because I am soft, I say it because the basis of good teams is passing, finding space, organising the defensive line, communications and movement. All of this can be taught within the framework of touch and therefore without contact.

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