For the love of rugby

Sally-Anne Huang

High Master, St Paul's School

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It doesn’t surprise many people to learn that, unlike my predecessor as High Master of St Paul’s, I have never played rugby for England. What does surprise them more, however, is that, as a lifelong fan of the game and passionate ‘rugby mum’, leading a school that was there at the foundation of the sport, was a major incentive and thrill when I decided to move to this role. And you don’t have to be a 6 foot man to see the benefits of rugby for many young people and to want to advocate for its positive qualities.

In this, the 200th anniversary year of the game, it’s clear that rugby is in need of friends and advocates. Headlines around injury in the professional game, the rise in popularity and provision of other sports, and the increasing challenges of finding appropriate school boy fixtures when schools run to extremes – either putting out too few teams or bringing in the England front row – has meant that rugby is now under threat in our schools and we have moved well beyond the point where we can bury our heads in the sand and hope that it can hold on to its traditional place in our culture.

Of course, some might say that the risk of injury and our increasing understanding of the dangers of contact sports should be enough to consign rugby to the past. Personally, I fear we might well be throwing the baby out with the bath water if we take that view too quickly. Let me make it clear – I think that all sports are of value to young people and that any school with wellbeing at its heart should ensure a full programme of physical activity – but I do think there is reason to draw attention to the particular qualities of rugby at this juncture.

Anyone who has worked with young people who have enjoyed the game will know that it offers a compelling blend of team work, discipline and confidence building that can make the most extraordinary difference to individual lives. Very few sports compare in terms of having your own role and needing to fulfil it well for the team to succeed. Very few teach discipline and respect, where getting it right technically and personally truly matter as they do in rugby. And, like it or loathe it, there is an adrenaline rush to having the confidence to take on and succeed in a contact sport which builds self-esteem in an incredible way for those who have not overcome similar challenges elsewhere.

I am extremely proud of the fact that HMC schools can produce international players of the highest ability. My son was at Tonbridge with Ben Earl and seeing Ben do so well at the World Cup has been a joy. However, I’m not advocating for the England internationals who will make it anyway, but rather for the young men and women who, for years, have developed skills and character traits through rugby which have helped them in so many different contexts and who have had better physical and mental health for life as a result of playing rugby at school.

So, what do we need to do? As one of rugby’s founding schools we feel at St Paul’s that we have a duty to contribute to the responsible stewardship of the game and this includes supporting innovations to protect the sport, improve safety, and enhance enjoyment. More specifically, we are exploring changing our rugby provision to reach a higher proportion of our pupils, build enthusiasm and increase the number of pupils playing the game for longer. This includes working on developing our Touch Rugby offering, including fixtures, and we even have a member of staff who has been on sabbatical researching a new form of Rugby with the RFU. This “3rd Game” introduces rules which keep the ball in hand, encourage try scoring out wide, and eliminate the element of play known as “jackling” to create a faster, lower contact version of the game. We look forward to piloting this new game this week with four other HMC schools – King’s College Wimbledon, Hampton, Tonbridge and RGS Guildford – because we do all need to work together to make a difference for the next generation of players.

With the World Cup about to enter its final stages, this week is Rugby Week at St Paul’s. In addition to the 3rd Game Pilot, we are taking part in Rugby School’s bicentennial Celebrations with fixtures, England International Maggie Alphonsi is speaking to Paulines and the 1st XV will experience a weight training session with GB powerlifter Melina Irawo. As a fan of the sport, I am incredibly excited to be part of this journey for the school.

A recent leaver came to see me last year to talk about his love of rugby, the difference it had made to his time at the school, and his fears for its future. He said he was speaking to me because he knew that I cared about it too. The answers to those fears will not be straightforward and they won’t be found by one school alone, but we have to put our energy into looking for them and allowing a sport we love to evolve and to thrive into the future.


12 October 2023