A whole new ball game
Rugby, however, is what more than a quarter of Devon's 400-odd primary schools are now playing, and the game looks set to invade the school pitches of other counties as well. Moreover, it is just as popular with girls as with boys.
At this stage it should be said that so far no parents have complained, because rugby in this case is not the game we see on television. For a start it is non-contact (no tackles) and for a second, much simplified. It can also be played by teams with as a few as four players a side.
Called "tag rugby", what Devon schools are playing is a version designed to appeal to young children - boys and girls. Opponents are not brought to the ground by an armlock round the knees, but instead have to relinquish the ball when one of two ribbons attached with velcro to a belt round each player's waist is pulled off.
The idea was introduced to schools in 1993 by Nick Leonard, Rugby Football Union youth development officer for Devon. For some time he had been using the other non-contact form of rugby, "touch" or "new-image" rugby, in which a "tackle" is made when a player touches his or her opponent on both hips. This is also being promoted by the Rugby Football Union as a game which is suitable for children, but which can teach them the basic rugby skills.
The problem with new-image rugby, says Leonard, "is that there are too many arguments about whether someone had touched an opponent or not. In tag rugby you don't even need a referee because it is obvious when you have been tackled. You either have the ribbon or you don't".
Tag rugby was first played by the armed forces abroad, in places where hard ground made rough tackling dangerous. Pieces of cord tucked into shorts as tags were used initially, but the introduction of velcro belts of different colours (denoting different teams) - first used in South Africa for beach rugby - solved the problem of tags dropping off or being tucked in to make varying lengths.
At Wembury primary school near Plymouth, which has pioneered the game in schools, it is now as much a part of its year 6 PE as football and netball. "Pupils can pick it up in only 45 minutes," says acting head Paddy Marsh, himself a former rugby player. "So it is an easy game for primary schools that don't have a PE specialist, let alone a rugby specialist." Nick Leonard has devised a number of warm-up games which teach the basic skills, including how to pass backwards.
The ease with which it can be taught is not the only advantage. The game, says Wendy Collin, primary PE advisory teacher for Devon, "is of real benefit because all other invasion games, for example football, attack a target, whereas in rugby players attack a whole line. The attacking and defending strategies are there-fore quite different and they need thinking through very carefully.
"In addition, children don't have so many preconceptions about rugby as football. They are more inclined to work out what is best rather than copy images they see on television. It is a very active game; they run and run. And the tags are a good incentive."
That it is an active game was obvious when I watched four and seven-a-side games at Wembury. All players kept on the move and the handing back of the tags, which it might be thought would slow up the game, was quick. Pupils played with obvious enthusiasm. It was a rainy day but the muddy pitch served as an incentive for spectacular tries in the mud. It was noticeable that when Nick Leonard went off to referee another game this one continued without any discernible change of pace or arguments.
Year 6 pupils were not ashamed to admit that they liked it because it was not dangerous. "You don't get hurt this way; you don't have to grab anyone's legs," said Lloyd Bonney. Some of the boys said they liked the game but expressed a preference for soccer - "because you kick the ball". All liked the fact that it is an equal-opportunity game and all were enthusiastic about rolling around in the mud.
* Nick Leonard has produced a video, Tag Rugby: a new invasion game, available from Devon Rugby Football Union, which aims to explain the game to primary schools. Details from him on 01392 382317