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.