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Rugby’s got a problem


The 2015 Rugby Union World Cup starts this Friday, and what started out as a relatively small event contested by the few serious rugby-playing nations has now evolved into a massive event contested by the few serious rugby-playing nations. The sport has undergone a transformation since 1987 and is now more popular among the public than ever, as well as a magnet for brands, businesses and the corporate world.

Away from the highest echelons of the professional game, though, rugby has got a problem. I have spent many mornings over the past five years watching schools rugby, and while the problems of parent and player behaviour in junior football are well-publicised, junior rugby’s problems are, to my mind, more serious.

An example: last Saturday, my son was concussed on the rugby field. His concussion is mild but still required a visit to A&E. Two other boys at his school had CT scans on Saturday, while at another local school a friend told me that two boys left the playing fields in an ambulance. This isn’t an anomaly: every week, boys are carted off to hospital with wrists, collarbones, knees and cheekbones that end the game in a different condition than they were at the start.

It’s a physical sport with its own risks, and no one, I think, is asking for the dreaded Health and Safety to assume a bigger role in policing our sporting pursuits. But every week, boys at different stages of their physical development are pitched against one another in a fast-paced contact sport, and the results aren’t pretty. I recall reading an article where Sir Clive Woodward said he wouldn’t allow his sons to play rugby, unless, I think, steps were taken to equalise the weight and speed of the players.

The physical disparity of the players isn’t the only problem. The myth that rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen is exactly that: a myth. The behaviour of the parents at school rugby games is infinitely worse than at school football matches, with a sizeable minority exhorting their sons to “smash him” and “hit him” while marauding up and down the touchline like fleece-covered Neanderthals. As for the fabled respect for the referee, that, too, is disappearing. Spending the entire game slagging off an official who’s struggling to keep a lid on the proliferation of late tackles, high tackles and sly punches, while remembering to mutter “Sir” occasionally doesn’t fool anyone, fellas.

I hated playing rugby at school, but occasionally had to, and certainly remember watching my mates play in our very successful school team. I spoke to a couple of them on Saturday night, and none of us could recall such high incidences of injury or bad behaviour on the touchline when we were young.

If things carry on like this, the number of boys playing junior rugby after the age of 12-13 will decline significantly. It is too dangerous a sport to be played without discipline and due care and attention to the welfare of opponents. My son was deliberately kicked in the head and punched on Saturday, even though his concussion may well have been the result of him mistiming a tackle and sustaining a blow to the top of his head. That’s not anyone’s idea of fun.

As a result, a game which began with him captaining his school team has ended with him deciding he won’t play any more school rugby this season. It’s simply not worth it for him to risk his participation in football (not to mention the risks to his health in GCSE year). Man down.

The rugby authorities need to act now to stream junior matches according to the players’ size and speed, regardless of age. They need to clamp down on the excessive competitiveness of parents; instigate a zero-tolerance policy for on-field behaviour and ensure that any sign of disrespect towards referees remains completely unacceptable. If they don’t, the legacy of this year’s World Cup will go to waste.

Update: after several significant injuries in the World Cup, the surgeons have weighed in…



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