Sunday, 23 May 2021

Professionalisation of schools rugby - it's not a single story

 I got involved in a lively twitter debate on the issue of schools becoming rugby academies following a tweet from Jonathan Alexander Smith who quoted a blog by Timothy E Jarvis who, in turn, was quoting Allan D Miles.

I have great admiration for Timothy Jarvis and Allan Miles and eagerly await, and read, everything they post on their respective blogs, Theres’s a Hadeda in my Garden and Coach Talk.

I fully agree with what they say about the capture of schools rugby and the undesirable transformation of some schools into rugby academies. These are issues I’ve been on about for years and on which I’ve written extensively, in my days as a journalist, and in my own attempts to be blogger now that I’ve retired.

I hate twitter (and I love it). The problem is that you cannot have a real debate in so few words. You run the risk of making your point poorly, or of having what you said misunderstood. From then on, the conversation continues with you stuck in a box and with no way to speak your way out of it. It’s frustrating and that’s why you shouldn’t get into discussions on twitter. The reply function on twitter is the perfect tool for the narcissistic listener who is composing his response in his head before you have finished talking.

So, while fully agreeing with the views of those quoted on the negative aspects of a professional approach to rugby in schools, I pointed out that it’s not a single story (nothing ever is). What I wrote (probably a bit ambiguously) is:

“Good points but, as always, it's not a single story. Schools have a duty to prepare teams & players to compete in this new "pro" environment. There are principals and coaches who are great ethical educationists, Not all high performance systems are evil.”

My use of the phrase “pro” environment refers to the way in which teams and players are prepared nowadays in the highly competitive world of interschool rugby at the top level. It has nothing to do with producing players for the professional rugby game once they leave school. Of course it’s not the role of schools to do that and I would never suggest that it is. The chances of making it as a professional player are so slim that it’s actually very poor advice to encourage a young player to put all his efforts into it.

We need professional players. They are the ones we all love watching on TV and in the stadiums (in the good old days). Quality coaching at school level is necessary to put them on their paths, but it’s not the role of school rugby to produce players for the professional ranks.

The professional school rugby environment I’m talking about is managed by highly qualified coaches – technical experts, fitness specialists, sports psychologists, nutritionists etc. Teachers, typically don’t have these skills, so those roles are filled by people from outside the school, and they don’t come cheap.

For the boys involved, rugby becomes pretty much the only game they can play, and they practice almost all year long. Early specialisation, excessive exercise workloads and, sometimes, the use of performance enhancing substances, are the problems that are often found.

And it’s all driven by an over-emphasis on winning. Timothy and Allan have that exactly right in what they have written. No amount of professional coaching will bring you victory if you don’t have the right players, so recruitment becomes part of it, and it’s probably the greatest of the evils, akin (almost) to child trafficking.

When schools use the possibility of a career as a player to lure a promising youngster to their ranks they are being dishonest. They know they cannot guarantee that he will make it. No, it’s all about winning, and ensuring that there is a flow of good (and physically big) players coming through the age groups.

It is, however, not a single story. In my 40-odd years of closely observing schools rugby I’ve seen some pretty shady practices, and a lot of dishonesty. But I’ve also met great educationalists and philosopher coaches who have the interests of their players at heart.

I’m not arguing that the professionalisation of rugby at school level is necessarily the right thing. I am saying, however, that not every school that runs a professional rugby system is guilty of unethical and uneducational practices. And I’m saying that it is possible to run a sophisticated, super-efficient programme and still have the holistic education of the kids at heart.

That’s what great schools are all about. They have great people in them, and they are very successful in all that they do, including rugby. They treat everything seriously and do all they can to turn their learners into the best possible versions of themselves. They all have successful sporting programmes and all produce excellent academic results with near 100% pass rates and bucketsful of distinctions.

That’s not always the case, I know, and there are plenty of examples of where the obsession with winning overrides everything and things go wrong. Those schools are not among the great ones, in my view.

I don’t like the professionalisation of school rugby, just as I don’t like twitter, but there are no single stories.


  1. Good.. Well said. Remember a young man of 18 yrs is ready to make his mark... He is actually wild at heart.. He sticks his chest out and wants to do well.. He needs to be nutured.. Without being seen as a commodity caused by some unhumble person throwing money around for ego trips. Rugby is just part of the wild at heart program.

  2. The price of progress. Symptomatic of the professional era. But at the end of the day todays Top 20 ranked schools would look the same as 1998's Top 20 ranked schools, barring the order in which they ranked. Your traditionally strong schools then and now are the same. The tools required to remain a traditionally strong school have changed dramatically.

    1. That's true. As a professional approach filtered down into schools those "Top 20" were the ones to adopt it, and then everyone had to join in to remain competitive. My question is, why can't they remain ethically and educationally accountable at the same time? Too often, what I call the 'Lance Armstrong' excuse is used - because everyone else is doing it, the playing field is level and so we aren't cheating.

  3. I always look forward to your views on school boy rugby. Whilst I appreciate there are two sides to the story and two possible approaches to compete in the pro era, there is no doubting the nefarious desires of many schools to win at all costs. School boy rugby is unregulated and unchecked. As such, schools can get away with terrible behaviour. Unethical recruiting and turning a blind eye to performance enhancing substances can never be considered educational best practice or looking out for the best interests of the boys. You are so right about the "Lance Armstrong" syndrome or excuse. I can't tell you how many parents I have spoken to who see nothing wrong with selling their childs talents to the highest bidder and condoning the use of steroids. The everyone else is doing it is a cop out and legitamises the cycnical behaviours. I don't believe it's possible to be a pro rugby school and not get dragged into unethical recruiting or similar questionable behaviour. You are either a pro rugby school or you arent! The reason schools can't remain ethically and educationally accountable is simple. There is no system or regulating body in place to set up rules and monitor behaviour. I call it the race to the bottom. Once you believe you have to follow the lead of others, you are in the race to the bottom. You will recruit players at any cost. You will ignore the use of performance enhancing substances and you will do anything to remain in the top 20! You can try and hide behind the excuse of being a traditionally strong rugby school and as such you have to remain competitive. I have seen some top schools justify buying or recruiting players which is akin to human trafficking. I'm amazed the Department of Education haven't stepped in to regulate the practice.
    I can promise you the top 20 in 1998 would look nothing like the top 20 of the last five years. Garsfontein, Menlo Park, Glenwood, Jeppe, EG Jansen, etc would probably not even have been in the top 75!

  4. I agree with the “no single story” notion as the extent to which the sport experience for adolescents in schools may be abused will differ from one school to the next. I would suggest that we refrain from speaking about “professional school sport” because that is inaccurate, school sport being unfortunately quasi-professional when win at all costs defines the school’s sport culture. The term “high performance” as in centres in schools is equally misguided as it simply does not belong in schools. Any performance enhancing environment should be as available and as relevant to any boy in the school. Perhaps “human performance” would be closer to the mark although every classroom or other facility is geared towards human performance as each and every pupil is encouraged to become the best that they can be as a young citizen. I would also argue that teachers, encouraged to undertake in-service coaching programmes, are the best coaches of sport in schools and are perfectly able to coach at the level required. Of vital importance is their ability to understand the education process and so align their sports coaching with the vision, mission and values of the school. Schools that manipulate adolescents towards winning rugby at any cost manipulate through:
    1. school leadership teams who base corporate goals on winning sports teams
    2. weak educational leadership, especially when frail adult egos are aligned with winning at sport
    3. coaches who bully adolescent boys psychologically to win
    4. coaches who do not understand the difference between constructive aggression and dirty play
    to win
    5. school leadership that strategically imports talented players from other schools to win
    6. coaches who subtly encourage boys to repeat years at school in order to have mature 19 to 20 year olds playing school sport to win
    7. coaches turning a blind eye when illegal substances are being consumed to win
    8. coaches demanding unreasonable commitment to an excessively long “season” of sport to win
    9. coaches denying students a range of sports by demanding specialisation to win
    10. school leadership teams that fail to model principles and values that honour the integrity of the adolescents they educate, because they choose to compromise to win

    To conclude, we need to commend those school leadership teams that continue to rise above the pervading dross mentality. They strive to integrate sport participation as an invaluable component of a broad education curriculum. Such schools are those that pride themselves on high quality education achievement in striving for young citizens who reveal initiative, resilience and character.