Play up and play the game

IE Today, 27.01.16, sports like rugby have a big role in pupil development but they also need to be organised responsibly, says HMC member Jay Piggot, headmaster of leading independent Epsom College.

When the headmaster of Brian O’Driscoll’s former school, Blackrock College, was asked what made O’Driscoll possibly the finest rugby player to represent the country, he responded wisely and obliquely. He did not allude to the boy’s courage, speed, defence or handling skills; instead, he said that great schools are about the creation of community and the personal development of everyone, pupils and staff, within the environment.

Those of us who have spent most of our working lives in schools know that competitive sport has a significant part to play in the creation of community and the shaping of character. At Blackrock College, the young O’Driscoll learnt that passion, commitment, teamwork and discipline transform young lives and help to develop character.

The game of rugby has changed significantly in recent years and the advent of the professional game has not always translated into schools and mini-rugby at clubs as safely as required. For example, the tackle has changed radically. When I played the game, if you tackled your opponent around the legs and brought him to the ground, your work was complete and your reputation remained intact. By contrast, in today’s game the tackle is about impact – offensive defence – running up on your opponent at full speed with a view to hitting him hard around the arms to dislodge the ball or at least preventing him from passing and so effect a turn-over of possession.

The school rugby circuit has changed radically during my time coaching rugby at Millfield School, running the1st XV at Eton and then as headmaster of two schools that compete in their top respective circuits, Campbell College in Belfast and Epsom College in Surrey. Schools that exist on the top circuits will have players that are attached to professional organisations, be it Ulster Rugby or Harlequins RFC. In general, the boys within these set-ups receive sensible advice and guidance and their progress and conditioning are safely monitored; however, difficulties may arise as these elite athletes return to their school environments and the conditioning and regimen they undertake is misapplied by their teammates in the school environment. In this case, schools need to take responsibility for all their players and monitor their development and wellbeing assiduously.

Vigilance is also required by headmasters and directors of sport in schools to ensure that physical mismatches of teams across various year groups are avoided. The key is to have individuals of proper sense and judgement in charge of the sport and to adjust the teams in advance of the fixture or on the day to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Ideally, the most gifted players will be spread fairly evenly across schools; however, problems may arise when one or two schools begin to attract a preponderance of top physical athletes. As a consequence, time-honoured fixtures that were evenly contested in the past now become mismatched and potentially dangerous. The RFU and the other governing bodies of the home nations can legislate to safeguard the protection of players; however, at a local level those figures in charge of the players in schools also need to put the safety and the development of the individual player ahead of other wider school considerations.

If we in schools continue to take our responsibilities for player welfare seriously, we will continue to create communities that nurture the next generation of Brian O’Driscolls. Furthermore, we will continue to create an environment where sport is able to enhance our pupils and their relations with staff and where passion and commitment prepares pupils for the richest possible lives as adults.

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