I was lucky enough to grow up playing my rugby before the advent of professionalism. As a young lad, this meant playing the game for the sheer enjoyment and pleasure it gave me. I still think about those days down in Cornwall playing at school with my mates and then joining the local club – and loving the feeling of being part of a team.
To me, rugby is a sport with a clear ethos of respect and I know I had some fantastic values instilled in me while growing up. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I can see now how it shaped me and gave me a set of standards. And those standards still help me to this day, in running my Raging Bull clothing business.
What concerns me now is the pressure on young players to turn professional. You can’t blame the clubs for this, but what certainly is happening is that many young players are being picked up at the age of 13 and put straight into academies.
This changes the way they view and play the game, and it can stop them from enjoying themselves – they are now too busy studying nutrition sheets and weight-lifting schedules. It can also force young lads to abandon other sports that they love, such as football and cricket, far too early. In many cases, when they reach the age of 18, these lads miss the grade as a rugby professional, having lost out on precious years of playing their other sports.
Don’t get me wrong: academies have been successful in identifying and bringing along talented players. They are, however, commercial enterprises, and they want returns on their investment in their young charges. This has led to an increase in the size and power of young players, and it actually worries me a bit to see the muscle development on teenage boys.
We are now starting to see schoolboys turning out in professional games: and, to be able to do this, they have to be physically developed. I believe that there should not be so much of a rush to play these boys. Skills are more important than size when you are 18 years old.
To me the school system has historically worked well for England, ensuring that the better players are sought out by the top rugby-playing schools. School is a fantastic environment to play the game. There’s nothing better, in sport, that to be with your school mates, proudly wearing your school colours on the first-team pitch.
School sport often means you throw up players who have developed their own way of playing the game. Take, for example, James Simpson-Daniel, the Gloucester and England back who learned his trade at boarding school.
As a forward I won’t claim to know too much about back play, but to me James was one of the most outstanding backs of his generation. Another advantage of school sport is that the schools tend not to focus on just the one sport, so that most of a school first XV will find themselves in the hockey, football and cricket teams too, developing into well-rounded sportsmen.
It is this bigger picture that I want to stress. Sport isn’t just a job. If you don’t make it as a professional player, you are certainly not a failure. So many young rugby players give up in their late teens and early twenties, and this seems such a waste.
Belonging to a club and playing at whatever level gives you many valuable assets – comradeship, lifelong friends, even business contacts. To just be the best you can be is the most important lesson of all.