Andrew O'Rourke explains why schools should take advantage of the Rugby World Cup to inspire pupils to take up the sport - and learn some life lessons.
"I just got to the point where I was just confident. Every time I went out on the field, I felt confident in what I was doing."
(Mark Cueto, BBC Sport Rugby Union, May 2015)
I feel I should explain why I’ve started this post with a quote from Mark Cueto, as I understand some of you might not be that familiar with who he is (apart from the fact that he has something to do with rugby).
To fill you in, Cueto said this on the eve of his retirement from the professional game only a couple of months ago, when reflecting on his career. What you definitely won’t be familiar with is the fact that he and I went to the same secondary school (Alsager School in Cheshire), albeit with a 10-year gap between our time there.
Regardless of how tenuous this connection may be, whenever I saw him playing on TV I would always root for Cueto to dive over for a try. I hoped I could one day emulate his footsteps, especially since our paths had started in the same place.
As the years went by, Cueto became more of an established player in the England set-up, while I became more of a spectator than a player of the game. However, despite our differences, I understand what he says about confidence. The confidence that both Cueto and I got from playing rugby at school encompassed a range of qualities that are seen by our schools as integral to young people's education. Playing the game doesn't just develop physical health and resilience: on and off the pitch, rugby's core values include respect, teamwork, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship.
At the same time, we know that rugby can cause injuries that occasionally lead to long-term consequences, no matter what level you’re playing at. These risks are getting harder to ignore, particularly with the recent high-profile cases of concussion suffered by Wales winger George North and England full back Mike Brown. I remember one of the most daunting aspects of playing rugby was the tackling; it’s not as if I was one of the smallest players, but I definitely wasn’t the biggest. So I understand why parents would be discouraged from allowing their children to play the game at school.
Yet we can’t just forget the positives and abandon the game completely. So how do we promote safe rugby and reduce injuries in schools?
Surely we have to start by investing in infrastructure, by bringing school pitches and facilities up to standard, and making sure coaches are fully trained to match individual players to team positions that suit their size, build and strengths.
At a global level there's the AIG Rugby Safety Awards. All rugby players, from primary schools to the premiership, have been encouraged to submit videos and photos showcasing how they're improving safety in their rugby clubs.Every man or woman who's played rugby knows it's an inclusive sport with a role for every shape and size, from the small, slightly built scrum-half to the bulkier prop forward. Age also doesn't need to be a barrier, with non-contact touch rugby a great option for the under-10s.
At this stage, some of you may be asking why I’ve focused so much on rugby when it comes to teaching life lessons at school. After all, rugby doesn’t have a wide appeal across the country in the way football does, and is often portrayed as being played behind the gates of public schools. However, what I’m considering doesn’t only apply to rugby; pretty much all sports can bring out the personal attributes that schools want to build.
In the past we've seen how the Fifa World Cup, Wimbledon and Olympics have left a legacy behind, inspiring a generation of children to emulate the success of the stars involved. With the Rugby World Cup here in England this autumn, surely we have to take the opportunity to carry on this success. When England won the tournament back in 2003, I remember seeing first-hand how this motivated more of my classmates to pick up the odd-shaped ball and join me at after-school practice.
So, regardless of whether your school has a rugby team or not, I hope you can take away one idea from reading this.
Each time our nation gets behind one of these sport spectacles, the legacy has to trickle down to the youngest in our society and the schools they grow up in. Perhaps, by assessing how sports such as rugby can safely progress in schools, we'll be able to instill the core values of respect, teamwork, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship that gave the likes of Mark Cueto the confidence to go all the way to the professional rugby pitch.