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School Rugby: A chance to collaborate, listen, and innovate

With the news that the RFU run schools rugby competitions in England are cancelled for the 2020/21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps now is the time for the school game to sit back, take stock, and think creatively about its future.

Let’s be pretty clear, school rugby here is good. Really good. We get so much right, from giving players opportunities to understanding more often than not how far to drive competition – for instance in one pan-hemisphere discussion over lockdown about the idea of schools from different nations competing against each other it was hypothetically asked what the outcome would be in a game with a serious mismatch. Without skipping a beat the point was made that English schools would simply step off the gas. School rugby here does a fantastic job of ‘getting it’.

There are issues though, not least that sometimes directives can push that barometer too far the other way and feel as though they are actively discouraging competition. We have to remember that competition is a part of human nature, nobody partakes in an activity just because winning is a possible outcome but once partaking in an activity, everyone wants to win – some more demonstrably that others, but it is a universal part of human nature.

Furthermore, sport is a meritocracy. If you work harder and are better than those you are in competition with you will do better. So too is schoolwork, which is why so often this idea that competition in sport is a bit of a negative seems so in contrast to the way we educate in general, you rarely see an argument that we should not mark schoolwork because doing badly (or ‘losing’) would be too discouraging. Why then is sport often treated differently?

Cancellation of tournaments due to the pandemic is a chance to reflect on this and other areas of consideration around the future of school rugby. Among them; are the current competition structures working and are the regulations working for the game and for schools or are we actually holding the game back for the individuals within those schools? As well as more general points around school rugby and what we can do better.

There is a sense, and it may just be a sense rather than a reality, that currently regulation and control of the school game is more important than independence and creativity of thought from those involved in the school game. For instance, one would think that if a group of schools decided they might get more out of arranging a competition against each other that that would be pretty easy to organise. Not so. The competition would have to be played in the correct playing window, the correct County Schools Unions must give approval, invite more than six schools and from slightly further than your neighbouring county and you need ERFSU permission. That’s before we even think about whether teams from other parts of the UK might take part, never mind the rest of the world. All this just to arrange a competition so kids can play a bit of competitive rugby against a greater range of teams.

To be clear, it’s not entirely an RFU problem, it’s a rugby problem – World Rugby’s own regulations make touring a process of hoop jumping, for instance.

What we learn then is that while rugby might be ‘a game for all shapes and sizes’ physically, it is far from it mentally. Thinking differently and creatively off the field is to be discouraged, regulation is king and following blind is his rule.

Perhaps school coaches might be among those best placed to dictate the future of the school game and what it looks like. After all they are ones the ground, and if school sport is seen as an extension of education (which it surely is) then they are surely well placed to work alongside governing bodies to deliver what they see as the best way forward for their pupils.

Collaboration is the key. If COVID has taught us all anything it is that in nearly every area of life collaboration and innovation are how we move forward and continue to thrive. Rugby, and in this case school rugby, must do the same.

To that general point of what we can do better in schools rugby, that is perhaps the answer – collaborate; listen without agenda, and then we can innovate based on what we collectively hear and decide.

On competition more specifically there are questions to be asked – are there too many competitions? Why are competitions not full?

At U18 level you have five tiers of schools Cup – Champions Trophy, Schools Cup, Schools Plate, Schools Vase, and Schools Bowl. None were full last year, the Champions Trophy is a 32 team tournament and yet only 20 teams entered, meaning the first found had 12 byes and only four fixtures. This is supposed to be the premier school competition in the country and yet it had only a 63% entry rate. Things are slightly better in the U18 Schools Cup and Vase, 84% and 73% respectively (before factoring in walkovers etc), but those are still ridiculously high numbers of empty spaces in the draws. 

So, two key questions have to be asked directly to schools: 1) Why are there so many spaces, what is making schools reluctant to enter? 2) Are there too many competitions?

Understanding the answers to those two questions means that collectively a plan can be made as to what to do going forward. Something is wrong with what is being offered when, for instance, the likes of Cranleigh, Millfield, Sedbergh, Brighton College, and Kirkham Grammar School are not involved in any of the national U18 competitions.

Not having competitions this season is a huge shame, but it has given us the gift of time at least – the time to truly look at these issues and take the time to look at solutions. There is no rush.

School rugby in England is great, it really is. But it can be better, too. With competitions being cancelled we have a unique chance to collaborate, listen, innovate, and make changes if and where necessary. 2020/21 could be the making of school rugby for the next decade of pupils to come. Let’s use the year well.

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