With the RFU announcing the move on its return to rugby pathway from stage B to stage C last week, rugby in England moves ever closer – albeit with a way to go until we reach the final stage, stage F.
Nevertheless, having some progress along the path towards a return to rugby as we know it is exciting and the return of the Gallagher Premiership this weekend will only add to that, the joy fans had at being able to watch Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Au tells us that much.
With schools rugby edging ever closer, then (albeit still with no clear view as to when, understandably), it feels only natural to start thinking about its return and how, after such an abrupt end to 2019/20 and such a strange and worrying time for the whole world, it could be viewed.
If lockdown has taught us anything it is that life, and especially young life, is about memories and the people around you. That is as true of school sport and school rugby as anything, indeed it is perhaps most true in school sport.
School Rugby in England has a lot of yardsticks – what constitutes success? Is it on field, off field, something less tangible? Talking in purely generalised and simplistic terms, if one looks at the RFU it appears, fundamentally, to have two purposes – to have and maintain a successful England side, and to sustain and grow the community game. Viewed through the prism of school rugby that equates to producing future England players and making sure as many school players as possible stay in the game long into their adult lives.
Perfectly good aims both, one would say.
That filters through to an environment where the development of players is the central focus of school rugby, upskilling and learning constantly, results giving way to the long-term development of the group and the individual. Again, perfectly good and rational aims.
Then we have the academies, simplistically they want to develop as many potential players as possible and then as those players move towards the latter stages of their school careers they want to protect their bodies from too many games, from injury. Pretty sensible.
It all makes sense. However, there is one thing that COVID should remind us of about school rugby and it is that fundamentally it is about just three things – making memories, having fun, and picking up the life skills that sport teaches you.
To an extent that means understanding that while the RFU and the Academies are important, their aims (at a most simplistic level) are not necessarily the same as the aims of schools – not just school rugby, but schools as institutions.
For instance, yes, keeping players in the game is a useful yardstick for a school coach as to the success of the programme they have in place, of the enjoyment of the children in playing within it, and the memories made. However, in a successful overall school programme a pupil is likely to have a wide variety of interests, sporting and otherwise, no longer keeping in the game after school might not be a reflection on the programme but a reflection that in adult life you can only keep up so many interests. Perhaps a more useful yardstick would be engagement in the game, do they buy tickets for games or subscribe to BT Sport?
Producing internationals is, rightly, a source of huge pride for each and every school. Again, though, it isn’t actually the schools’ job to do so – the schools’ job is to create memories, fun, and give pupils the skills that sport can teach. Producing internationals is just an incredible by-product of that, one to be rightly very proud of.
As for holding players back from school rugby, either through a cap on minutes or simply not playing, to protect them for the academies (again, of course not always the case). In some cases as a plan it has merit, but we have to bear in mind that most important of all aspects of school sport – the memories you can make. What is a better memory, running out with your mates to strive for something you’ve all been putting in the effort for every day, or having to sit that out because you might be coming off the bench for the academy, an academy unlikely to contract you?
This is all, of course, viewed from the point of view of U18 1st/2nd XV rugby, priorities are rightly different as you moved down the pecking order of age and ability – what constitutes fun for a U15 3rd XV player is going to be different to a 1st XV U18 player.
So what are we getting at then? Well, that school rugby prioritises making memories and enjoyment in this post-COVID season. At that U18 1st XV/2nd XV level that might mean not shying away from ambition in achievement, as has become the trend, not being afraid to celebrate and share the achievement. After all, achievement is fun. Be it week to week or over a season as a whole. Over the last few years a sort of false narrative has built about school rugby, that players do not care about winning.
It comes from surveys about what players enjoy about the game and why they play it. Naturally the opportunity to win is not a big factor for anyone. Nobody plays a sport because they might win, but once they are playing the purpose of each game is to win.
One school 1st XV coach summed it up brilliantly to us last year, saying “my boys care deeply about results on a Saturday, who am I to shift their priorities when this is as big as it gets for them. So Sunday to Friday is about the long term and development, but on Saturdays it’s about going out and getting that result.”
It does not mean throw all the rest out of the window, definitely not, it just means let’s make sure that this season, of all seasons, everyone can come out of it saying, “I loved that”. Let’s make it about school rugby being the best rugby experience of as many pupils’ lives as possible. Sometimes that means caring about winning.
Schools rugby is miles better than the rugby that most pupils will ever play again, on the pitch, off the pitch, in the quality of their coaching, in the unity of purpose and ambition. So let’s make it as great as possible for each and every one of them. Let’s give everyone amazing memories, loads of fun, and equip them with all the life skills that sport can help to build.
After all, that’s the whole point.