“You will never be involved in a rugby environment like this ever again, so embrace and enjoy it.”
Those were the words from my first XV coach at St Joseph’s College on the eve of the final game of our season, my last experience of schoolboy rugby.
At the time I received the words with skepticism, not truly believing all of what was being said.
I had ambitions to continue pursuing a career in rugby, maybe turn professional one day, and surely representing your state or even your country would blow the schoolboy rugby experience out of the water.
Looking back now, after five years as a professional rugby player, although not reaching the lofty heights I sought to achieve of playing international rugby (that was left to my schoolboy teammate and good friend Laurie Weeks), I understand where my coach was coming from.
Perhaps it was the reputation Joeys has as being a rugby nursery, or the fact that I boarded for the duration of my secondary school years, but any time I wasn’t in the classroom, I had a football in my hands.
Before school, recess and lunch hours were spent playing tackle rugby out on the college fields, all of us returning to the classroom with dirty knees and sweaty armpits, making the last two periods an extremely unpleasant environment for us and the teachers.
Then the final school bell would ring and off to training we’d go, before perhaps playing a little touch in the evening during our study break.
I loved it, as a young kid would. Surrounded by your best mates all the time and being able to play the sport you love.
It stepped up another level on weekends, where playing in front of massive crowds, your whole school singing and cheering you on for the whole 80 minutes, created an amphitheatre atmosphere like no other. Family and friends would even come to the ground the night before and lay their picnic rug on a seat in the stands just so they could have the best seat in the house.
If you’ve been to a first XV rugby match, you know what I’m talking about.
Perhaps it was this overload of rugby and the mental and physical pressure that went with it that, when I walked out of the college gates for the final time, I went to Europe for a year to work and travel.
Now 11 years out of school, while being heavily involved in the game both playing and coaching, I have lost all contact with schoolboy rugby. Where there was once a time when I would scour the Sunday papers for the GPS rugby scores, now it doesn’t bother me that Joeys haven’t won a title for over six years, and our cross the river rivals, St Ignatius have the bragging rights for now.
What does bother me though, is the changing face of schoolboy rugby. After recently taking up a coaching role at Riverview (the school I used to love to hate), I’ve seen the dramatic change in training and expectation. There’s a highly pressurised environment present in schools these days as opposed to when I left all those years ago.
Year 10 students are now on heavy weights training programs, along with a diet of protein shakes; bigger is seen as better.
The gulf in standard between schools has broadened, highlighted by the well documented century of points that the Scots College put past Newington, as the issuing of scholarships at schools creates an unbalanced playing field. As Nick Farr-Jones said last week, nobody likes mismatches, and the unfair imbalance of talent across schools creates an unsafe environment for players.
Schoolboy rugby is vital in the development of rugby in Australia, and in a time where there is so much sport to choose from, we don’t want to lose our brightest young stars to rival codes because they get 50 points put past them every week.
The development of rugby over the past 10 years has in a large part been responsible for this change in focus at the grassroots level. The game is faster, the players bigger and the opportunities that the professional game present for a young man at school are lucrative goals.
It’s important though that the fundamental skills of the game are embedded at a young age. Passing, kicking, catching, and the ability to read the game are invaluable skills that we are starting to lose sight of as our fascination and quest for fitness and strength increases.
Weight training and putting on bulk can be done at any time of a career. We want rugby players, not athletes who can’t play rugby.
Finally, and most importantly, education at schools has to remain the priority, not only for the academic future of students, but instilling an attitude of commitment and hard work that can be translated onto the rugby pitch.
I was lucky that I completed a university degree before I became a professional player. So many young men go straight from school into full-time sport, without a second look at furthering their studies.
Organisations like RUPA (The Rugby Union Players’ Association) help professional players with this, but the message must start with the schools, in outlining the importance of not putting all one’s focus on rugby.
It’s important that players realise that rugby does not last forever and the physical nature of the game means it can end at any time. It’s about being prepared for life after rugby. Whether this means studying at university part time or one night a week at TAFE, it will all help.
It’s hard work, but will pay off in the end.