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Sunday 6 March 2016

Tackling Rugby

“Tackling should be banned from school rugby,” campaigners argued this week. Well, that would be a start, but I would go further and ban the whole hideous game completely. After that I would erase it from the record books as if it had never existed.

I detested rugby from the moment it was forced upon us at grammar school. Having moved from junior school where we played football, where I had even been good enough to get picked briefly for the school team, I was dismayed to find myself in a place where football was proscribed. It was what they played at the modern school across the road. It was perhaps the only point in favour of failing your eleven plus.

The doctors and academics behind the campaign base their proposed tackling ban upon sound foundations: they have convincing data to show that most rugby injuries and concussions occur in tackles. The figures for days lost from school, serious fractures, head and spinal injuries, cognitive impairment, not to mention death, make alarming reading. These things can have lifelong consequences, and not only for those receiving them.

On the other hand, I am prepared to accept that for some adolescent boys, and I emphasise some, teachers and rugby enthusiasts who want to retain tackling might also have a point. They say that rugby helps build character for the very reason that it is risky; that it provides the kind of physical challenge gradually being removed from everyday life; that it develops masculinity by putting the body on the line; and that it leads to increased confidence and self-esteem.

But I pay little attention to any of these arguments, reasoned or not. I just dislike rugby. I am not particularly competitive and don’t like shivering outdoors in hailstorms, slithering around in freezing mud while others try to knock the hell out of me. I have no interest in the game at all whether Union or League, touch or contact. I have never had any inclination to watch it on television, not even when England won the world cup in two thousand and something. And I am certainly no connoisseur of other men’s masculinity, no matter how intimate the scrums.

It’s all the fault of Mr. Ellis. Woe betide anyone with the effrontery to bring a note from their parents hoping to be excused because of some insignificant ailment such as a broken arm or bronchitis. He expected you to get stuck in to the scrums and tackles just the same, without any protection from degenerate appliances like gum shields, jockstraps or “tower of power” body posture.

The nastier the weather the better. Thick fog was one of his favourites. It was ideal for practising high kicking: blasting the ball up into the air and wondering who it was going to strike when it came back down again.

And when the pitches were too waterlogged to play on, there was tackling practice. You were paired off with a partner who would run slowly away as you charged up to tackle them from behind. You dived shoulder-first into their bum, bringing the cheek of your face firmly against their thigh, while simultaneously circling your arms tightly around their legs to bring them down into the mud. You had to be careful not to fall on their boots in such a way as to injure yourself where it hurt most. You then swapped round so that your tackling partner could do the same for you.

By far the most important concern in this was to make sure, at all costs, you were not paired off with Ivor Longbottom. Never has anyone been more aptly named. He looked as if he had two rolls of stair carpet stuffed down the back of his shorts, one each side. He must have had a body mass index of over forty. You would have had more chance of success trying to tackle one of those huge leather vaulting horses in the school gym. When you dived at full speed putting all your weight through your shoulder into the back of one-half of his enormous longbottom, you just bounced off ineffectually as he continued to trundle away still wondering when the expected tackle was coming.

The other way round, him tackling you, was too awful to contemplate. Even when the mud made it impossible to run, you had to make sure you were quicker than him so he couldn’t catch you, and hope Mr. Ellis did not notice. Being tackled by Ivor Longbottom would have been a sure way to get yourself included in the injury statistics, had anyone then been concerned enough to bother collecting them.

When it came to rugby games themselves, my main objective was to keep as far away from the ball as possible, and if by some accident or misfortune it came to me, to get rid of it immediately. It was an effective strategy. It ensured I never got picked to play with the heavy mob: the sturdily built lads who played rugby for the school and seemed to like nothing better than pulverising each other flat into the mud. These were the bullies who, on seeing someone thin like me in their way, would run straight at you with maximum momentum, leaving you with little choice but to get out of the way or suffer serious bruising. I almost did have to face them once when Mr. Ellis mistook me for someone else who had “... had a good game last week” and should “... see how you get on in the first team.” It was a close call, but I managed to convince him I was not who he thought I was, and had no inclination to “... well, let’s see how you get on anyway.” 

I suspect that to get into college to train as a games teacher there used to be two essential requirements. One was that you had to be able to convince them you were good at sports, and the other that you had to be a sadist. With Mr. Ellis it must have been touch and go on both counts. He was never ever observed to participate in any game or sport for more than a couple of minutes, nor was he a total sadist – he was a good way along the scale, admittedly, but he had been known in rare circumstances to excuse people from rugby. Those at death’s door might be allowed to run up and down the touchline waving a flag, and those already dead to go off and help the school gardener.

I must have been very effective at appearing dead because I spent quite a few games periods sweeping up leaves. Only once did I have to act as linesman, but turned out to be so inept I was never asked again. Evidently, to be a linesman, it helps if you understand the rules of the game.

Dreadful game!

Andrew Petcher is another blogger who hated rugby at school, as recalled in a post with a great punchline. Clearly, bloggers tend not to make good rugby players.

It was apparently a Chancellor of Cambridge University in the eighteen-nineties who came up with the oft misquoted comparison between football and rugby. Studiously taking care not to say which was which, he observed that: “one is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; the other a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” (see the saintsandheathens blog)

The image shows a match between Llandover College and Christ College, Brecon, Wales in 1965. 


  1. An excellent summary of the the agony of school rugby. I hated every minute of every game but unlike you I do rather like to watch it now. Sport was drummed into me by my dad. He was a Leicester fanatic, rugby, football, cricket and if he was still alive he would probably follow the basketball team. So it was Leicester Tigers for him and also for me!

    1. I've heard it suggested that school rugby was a form of social engineering to separate pupils from their footballing working class roots. It sounds as if coupled with your dad's influence it might have belatedly worked on you.

  2. The sadism's odd, isn't it? It seems to be so widespread and I had much the same experience with hockey *shudder*. I'm imagining your Mr Ellis as Brian Glover in Kes.

    1. Pretty much, but with dark hair. You can't imagine other teachers getting away with the systematic infliction of pain and degradation on those who don't like their subjects.

  3. Same here with any sport, hockey, rounders, netball. Still brings me out in cold sweats. Thank goodness we didn't have rugby.

    1. I'm beginning to think that the only school children who enjoyed any of these sports must have been future games teachers. They were masochists as well as sadists.


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