(From The Oundelian, published June 2020)
Picture the scene. Fifteen Oundelians, standing in a line, staring menacingly at fifteen pupils from another school. A whistle blows, and they’re off. The teams run at each other, tackle each other to the ground, try to get to the other side with a ball in their hand and repeat. No, it’s not some sort of bizarre cavalry charge, nor a punishment for sins in a previous life, much as it may feel that way, but a good old game of contact rugby. Just its description suggests its bizarre nature: and for some, it is the epitome of unhappy school afternoons. But why is it such an ingrained part of the culture of a School like Oundle?
At its core, the simple answer is that it’s just that: culture, tradition. But such schools have also historically had a great tradition for crippling hierarchies and unpleasant punishments. So why were these filtered out, but yet rugby slipped through the net? I will concede: rugby does certainly have its benefits. It encourages sportsmanship, playing as a team, social skills. The nature of rugby is such that, unlike in sports such as football, it is difficult for one good player to dominate; everyone therefore gets involved. However, there is also a whole different aspect to rugby which sets it apart from other sports.
I cannot see any justification for rugby being compulsory at any stage of education. There are so many other ways of teaching children the skills that, according to some, are ‘essential’ and ‘unique’ to the game of rugby.Charlie Martin, Crosby
Research from the University of London suggests that school pupils playing rugby carries a 17% risk of injury for players across a season. That means that in a season, nearly one in five players will incur an injury of some kind. Schoolboys are becoming bigger, stronger and more powerful, thus bringing more potential for more frequent and more serious injuries. Another study comparing the effects of a range of sports found that concussion rates in rugby are three times greater than those of ice hockey, and eight times those of American football. Such head injuries lead to an increased risk of dementia, Parkinson’s disease and increased adoption of violent behaviour.
What I am by no means trying to tell you is that Oundle should not offer rugby as a sport. It is indeed an important part of public school life, and there are many people for whom it brings great pleasure, as well as good experience. Oundle has a history of playing rugby, and has even produced, and will undoubtedly continue to produce, outstanding professional players: Tim Swinson, Dave Walder, and more recently Tom Curry, who went on to play for England.
"Consider this: in the first Saturday of rugby matches of this academic year, the U16s incurred three concussions and one broken bone. This is one year of two-hundred in a school of 1100. With this data in mind, I rest my case"Charlie Martin, Crosby
However, if only due to the risk associated – and there is an unarguably high risk, no matter whether you like rugby or not, whether you are good at rugby or not – I cannot see any justification for rugby being compulsory at any stage of education. There are so many other ways of teaching children the skills that, according to some, are ‘essential’ and ‘unique’ to the game of rugby. Even if they do come out marginally less rounded, you must admit, you are risking an awful lot for gaining that extra bit of sportsmanship and team spirit. Surely, it is for the same reason that sports like boxing aren’t offered at Oundle. Granted, they may not offer such a glowing example of sportsmanship, but the risks associated are not dissimilar from those of rugby. Let’s face it, being concussed from being hurled into the air and hitting rock-hard mud or grass is not massively different from being concussed from a punch in a boxing ring. Consider this: in the first Saturday of rugby matches of this academic year, the U16s incurred three concussions and one broken bone. This is one year of two-hundred in a school of 1100. With this data in mind, I rest my case.
Surely, this way round, everyone is happy. Those who wish to play rugby – those who feel they have the potential, and the desire, to make a career out of it, or who just enjoy it as a sport, and are content with taking the risks associated for themselves – can. Those who don’t wish to play – and let’s face it, those in the U14E team are hardly likely to make a career out of the game – don’t have to. They can do something more suited to their strengths, but can still be encouraged to play as a team, and to improve their fitness.
Such benefits can be sought from rugby, but it’s important to note that they can also be sought elsewhere. So, if pupils are prepared to take the risk, fine – let them fulfil their potential. But if they don’t, let them play a game that isn’t served with a complimentary 20% chance of injury with every game.