Rugby union in England has rarely been under such scrutiny as it has experienced recently. A home World Cup will tend to have that effect. And it’s not only the national team and the Rugby Football Union that find themselves under scrutiny: schools rugby faces its own challenges too.
Safety and risk of injury are at the very top of that list of challenges. These are problems at all levels of the school game, from the U14 C teams to the 1st XV – but it’s at the latter level that the problem has seemed particularly acute.
Part of the reason for that, and one of the real challenges facing the sport at schools level, is the level of professional strength and conditioning training received by players involved with professional academies.
Some better-resourced schools are able to compete with this and offer a similar level across the board, but others cannot. This creates an issue where the players at those better-resourced schools possess not only superior technique, but also a sheer size and physicality that their counterparts from other schools cannot match.
For players, this presents some dangers. With the sorts of size discrepancies that we are seeing now, the risk of injury is very real. Head injuries in particular are a worry for us all, but in truth the risk is increasing across all impact injuries.
The other issue emerging is that the pupils themselves try to narrow that gap, copying what they observe that their peers – who may be members of an academy – are doing in the gym. They are doing so, however, without the required training or knowledge, which leads to its own dangers. More worryingly, some may be tempted to enhance their size by less natural means. It is something about which we must all educate and remain vigilant.
Head injuries in particular are a worry for us all, but in truth the risk is increasing across all impact injuries
What can we do, then, to reduce the number of injuries and to increase safety in the school game? This, unfortunately, is not an easy question to answer.
Everyone wants to keep their traditional block fixtures: players involved in academies need the high level of training that they receive there, and they can hardly be expected to shrink for school games. Perhaps, then, the solution is to accept that schools rugby is not the same as its professional counterpart, and that we should tailor the laws to reflect this.
The two main areas where impact injuries occur are the tackle and the breakdown. There has already has been some great work done to make the scrum a much safer place at age-grade levels. It may be time, now, to ask referees to enforce a rule where, on entry to the breakdown at U18 level, players are bound and driving over, rather than ‘clearing out’ with what is effectively at times an off-the-ball tackle. The tackle itself is harder to make significantly safer, but three areas that could be tightened up on are the policing of players leading with elbows and forearms; similarly with high knees; and, perhaps, to look at a way of forcing players to reduce the height at which they tackle to, say, below the armpit.
A side issue created by this increasing size and physicality is that players appear to be struggling with the workload. Where previously playing Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday was no problem, there does seem to be evidence that the current workload could be too much. Perhaps this, too, is contributing to the increasing number of injuries.
Let us remember, though, that rugby has always been a contact sport, and a very physical one. Injuries are simply a part of that and there is nothing new in it. While we must all look to make the game as safe as we can, schools must also not panic in the face of pressure: schools rugby is still in rude health.
Angus Savage is Director and Editor at the schools rugby website: www.fifteenrugby.com