Mauled beyond recognition

Dennis Richards

With some trepidation, Dennis Richards is introducing competitive rugby at his school but draws the line at matches for the over-14s.

These are momentous days for the game of rugby and they mean tricky decisions ahead for schools. As the gladiators of rugby league end their World Cup and celebrate 100 years of being paid, their union counterparts are licking their lips at the prospect of a future where considerable financial rewards are about to come their way.

The battle of the codes is on, and both sides are now bombarding schools with offers of free equipment, coaching from "development officers", training for teachers and concessionary tickets. The zeal is of evangelical proportions.

The school of which I am head in Harrogate, North Yorkshire hadn't played competitive rugby in almost 20 years but this term inter-school matches have started among the younger boys.

The change began two years ago when we appointed two energetic young teachers who were eager to re-introduce rugby into the school. They weren't PE staff but when asked at interview what else they could offer, both mentioned after-school sport.

People like that are gold-dust these days and I should have welcomed their proposal and enthusiasm with open arms. After all I was brought up in Wakefield in a hot-bed of rugby, and played the game myself until my mid-thirties. Instinct still takes me to Headingley rather than to Elland Road at the weekend. So why was I full of doubt and misgivings? Why did I find myself putting obstacles in their way?

For a start I was haunted by the thought that serious injury the dread of all sports teachers is more likely to happen in rugby than in any other game. The terrible price that some people pay came home to me recently with the story of Chris McKean, an old schoolmate of England players Rob Andrew and the Underwood brothers from Barnard Castle School. Chris, who is visiting us next month, was grievously injured in a school rugby match some 16 years ago and now, a tetraplegic, is courageously re-building his life through fund-raising for a bungalow where he can have some independence.

I know at least four other young men who, during my years of watching and playing rugby, have been left similarly paralysed. Did I really want to be the head who introduced this huge element of risk back into our school?

In the end, and I think this is crucial for schools, we played it by the book and devised a proper development plan including training for the staff who were to be involved. I kept the governors fully aware of what was happening and they took the final decisions including taking out extra insurance.

More controversially, I also recommended to the governors that we should not play competitive inter-school rugby beyond Year 9. Needle matches between older, bigger, potentially rougher teenagers are too dangerous for us to handle. We advise 14-year-olds who wish to continue playing competitively to join the local club, with parents taking responsibility for them.

It wasn't just the dreadful toll of young lives ruined which caused me to dither. Anyone who has watched Rugby Special recently will have noted the increasing brutality which seems to be a feature of top flight rugby. Do I really want to encourage the youngsters in my charge to be part of this? The litany of broken jaws, brawls, kicking, stamping and illegal tackles makes sickening reading and watching. The romance of the game has long gone; professionalism probably means it has gone forever.

I can however detect two positive outcomes of the current rugby revolution. Rugby is no longer a matter of class. We all used to know which schools played rugby union, which schools played league and which schools played association football. And once you knew that, you could have a pretty good guess as to the socio-economic character of the school. I suspect all that is about to change.

I cannot see how rugby union can still have pretensions to be the game for toffs. Indeed it may be the case that we will soon have one code of rugby in existence as union and league increasingly come together.

One further pause for thought. Another essential ingredient of the rugby culture has always been thought to be the machismo the beer, the sexist songs and wrecking hotels. But another revolution is going on which may bring about the biggest change of all. One of our sixth formers, ap-parently an outstanding back-row forward at a local club, now wants to start a team at school. Her name is Rachel and rugby is her passion. She wants to be a doctor and is a brilliant student. Unfortunately, as a result of a recent game she has a dislocated elbow and badly torn ligaments.

Rachel excitedly in-forms me that women's rugby is now the fastest-growing sport in Britain. So, where do I go from here?

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E High School, Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

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