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Does school rugby have an uncertain future?

Rugby has had a long and prominent place in the history of UK schools, but the playing field is quickly changing with the times. Neil Rollings, the former Head of rugby at four leading schools, and now Managing Director at Independent Coach Education, discusses whether school rugby has a future in the face of growing choice.

Many boys (and it was only boys) fell in love with the game at an early age, played enthusiastically through education and had a lifelong involvement in community clubs, as well as hedonistic days out at Twickenham. However, the idea that there was ever a halcyon period of school rugby when everyone loved the game is fanciful: at least as many boys learned to hate their experience of unsympathetic coaching on windswept fields. Behind the iron curtain of compulsion, there was some pretty shabby and unimaginative provision, especially for the less able, and disinclined.

Compulsory rugby is now history. Neither the RFU nor the law supports children being required to experience the contact game against their will. Barristers Katie Fudakowski (Farrers) and Sophie Beesley (Old Square Chambers) offer a legal opinion, “It is unwise to compel children to play sports, particularly contact sports, where their parents have not consented for them to  play. The school parent contract… should allow for (consent for) contact sports to be withdrawn”

In practice, most schools have acknowledged a constituency of pupils who have been regarded as unsuitable, or unwilling, to play the contact game for some years now. They have usually played a touch, or tag, version, often on the further reaches of the playing fields. When, where and by whom this decision is made is in the process of shifting. The pressure is for schools to offer parents a choice as to whether or not they consent to their children playing contact rugby before the season begins. For schools who play in the autumn term, this would be in the summer holiday. Many schools are now sending Google forms, or similar, to parents requiring explicit, advance permission to play the traditional game. Removing the judgement from the school, and handing it to all parents, however, is a significant change.

In the face of growing choice, schools need to better articulate, and promote, the benefits of the game. This is something that rugby has long been poor at doing. The risk lobby has mobilised itself effectively, and supported its position with science: benefit promotion has been assumed, and left behind.

The challenge for schools in the future will be to assess, articulate and deliver a range of experiences through rugby, which parents will value and recognise an acceptable risk level. The pandemic has shown how important belonging, togetherness and teamship are to humans: loneliness and isolation are the opposite of team games. Developing fortitude and resilience are more relevant than ever. Injury risk in the school game is a fraction of that in the adult game. At prep school level, rugby is probably no more dangerous than any other sport. Parents must be educated on the benefits of participation in rugby alongside the risks, if they are to make an informed choice.

Rugby is under unprecedented pressure in schools. The greatest challenge is not to score more points than the opposition, but to retain players and inspire parental confidence. Schools who believe in the unique benefits of the game will have to evolve new and creative programmes to deliver these.

Neil Rollings is a former Director of Sport, and Head of Rugby, in four leading schools.  He is now Managing Director of Independent Coach Education, and Chairman of the Professional Association of Directors of Sport in Independent Schools. 

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