For those unfamiliar with the game of rugby, it’s a contact team sport which originated in England during the first half of the 19th century. Two teams of 15 players run with and kick an oval-shaped ball, on a rectangular field, with H-shaped goalposts on each try line. I took my son to watch a rugby game recently. He’d seen some international games on TV, but nothing up close and near the touchline. In terms of playing sports, he’s done some soccer, gymnastics, and swimming. For the last six months his main sports have been tennis and swimming. He really enjoyed the rugby game, and it was a fun afternoon. What I hadn’t readied myself for was his question in the car on the way home. “Can I start playing rugby?”
When I watch England play rugby, I always think how wonderfully heroic, character forming and truly British this contact sport is. But I wince when I see a player injured, and I keep reading that rugby has become too dangerous. Is it really a sport that I would want my child to play? Injuries, everyone accepts, are an inevitable part of the rugby game. At the senior level, repetitive, concussive blows are beginning to be linked to dementia and long-term brain damage. Schoolboys, meanwhile, are becoming bigger and more powerful, but their bones remain as fragile as ever. I’ve read horror stories from doctors, who have seen patients with fractured skulls, broken bones, brain and spinal injuries. If professional rugby exposes its adult players to physical injury, I’m guessing that’s exactly what it does with children.
I’m not one of those parents that wrap their kids in cotton wool. Kids need to be allowed to climb trees, scale play equipment, skateboard, and ride horses. Injuries can and do happen. But is letting them play such a rough contact sport as rugby an unnecessary risk. Rugby was once compulsory in many UK schools, but over the years was replaced by other sports, mainly soccer. The UK Government now wants rugby to be played more at school as part of plans to increase competitive sports, and to curb rising levels of obesity. Children under 10 play touch rugby where they have to pass the ball to the other team as soon as an opponent makes contact with any part of their body. When they get to junior level, it becomes contact rugby, with tackles and scrums. This is when injuries occur.
Children in their early teens are often unskilled and don’t know how to avoid injury. Their weight and height may differ dramatically within a rugby squad and big kids can flatten smaller ones in a tackle. The gladiatorial nature of rugby sometimes means children are encouraged to carry on when injured. Health experts worry that schoolboy rugby is starting to follow the beefed-up, heavy-hitting example of the senior game we see today. Schools and rugby clubs are trying to reduce the likelihood of player injuries. Improving tackling skills and player flexibility, and more pre-season training now takes place. When picking teams, schools are encouraged to avoid mismatches in player physique.
I have friends whose kids play rugby. They are fully aware of the risks of the game, but their overriding feeling is that the dangers are outweighed by the benefits of fitness, self-confidence and camaraderie that their kids find in this sport. They argue that rugby is no more precarious than skiing, mountain biking, even football. Many schools agree, citing benefits including increase in confidence, self-esteem and self-discipline, and team working. Teachers say there are notable off pitch improvements in students when rugby is introduced in their schools. I guess it’s up to us as parents to make our own informed decisions, on whether our kids should play rugby and indeed many other sports. I am pleased that I don’t have to make this decision right now. For the time being, my son is too young to take up this particular game.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.