Four words to make any parent shudder – ‘Can I play rugby?’

Even those within the sport are struggling to define what constitutes an acceptable level of risk

In the middle of a scrum, or at the bottom of a ruck, or with a head-high tackle, there can be a fearful helplessness. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

In the middle of a scrum, or at the bottom of a ruck, or with a head-high tackle, there can be a fearful helplessness. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

One of the heirs to the overdraft recently uttered four words to shudder the parental soul – ‘Can I play rugby?’ To which the obvious four word reply was – ‘Over my dead body’.

But it’s okay. It’s just tag-rugby and that’s only a good game of primary school tag interrupted by a funny looking football.

But think of it as rugby’s pusher play, giving kids a taste before introducing them to the real thing. Before you know it their heads are out of the childish and into a scrum. And then you’re pleading with them to just say no, which of course only makes the damn thing even more beguiling to them.

Everyone knows there’s nothing more intoxicating to youngsters than popularity, success, fashion: and rugby has never been more popular, triumphant and on-trend than it is now. Lord alone knows what sort of rugger epidemic is going to break out if Ireland win the World Cup next year.

It will certainly mean ‘Can I play rugby?’ getting pitched to a lot more parents than ever before. Time was living far enough out in the sticks or in another part of town meant being spared having to deal with it. But not anymore it seems, which makes responding a tricky proposition.

Because no one wants to get all ‘thou shalt not’ about this. For one thing it doesn’t work. Another is how it feels counter-intuitive to tell kids not to play sport. On top of all that it’s hardly cool to impose prejudices onto the next generation.

Just because I think the vast social bindle tied to this rugby shtick is a hot lead enema to taste doesn’t mean everyone must agree – although obviously they should. But no one wants to be THAT guy, the one intent on producing mini-me’s, something that rugby, ironically, seems to specialise in.

So in a weird way it might actually be convenient if those guys kept keeping themselves to themselves. But the game that could once be caricatured as a purely private school pursuit is slowly changing.

No doubt it’s changing far too quickly for some old-schoolers, although positioning it in ‘national sport’ terms won’t stop being funny for a long time yet. Nevertheless, rugby’s appeal is widening and who knows how far its reach will ultimately get to.

The extent, though, could fundamentally depend on each individual parental response to that crucial initial query – ‘Can I play rugby?’

A prejudice

By now a sizable wedge of you reading the Irish Times are probably bewildered at how those four words could present any sort of dilemma. Some might even be as unfamiliar with doubt about the answer as they are with an overdraft.

And of course there’s a massive leap between kids enjoying a little tag rugby and growing up to play the real thing. Fingers crossed then that coming up with an answer can be skip-passed and I don’t have to say no way in hell are you playing that game while you’re my responsibility.

It’s not a mollycoddle thing. If the question is ‘Can I go boxing’ or ‘Can I play hurling’ then it’s straight to the club. If it’s Jujitsu, here’s a mat. Want to run with the bulls in Pamplona – there’s the ticket and ‘Buena suerte.’ Absolutely go knock yourself out.

Even if statistics indicate that riding a horse makes you a million times more likely to be seriously injured than on a rugby field I wouldn’t hesitate to give a leg-up. The same goes with almost anything else. But not rugby.

Sure there’s a prejudice to that. But strip away the baggage and the real problem is fear. Because it doesn’t matter what self-serving statistics get flung around. They can’t camouflage the inherent vulnerability rugby throws up.

Every sport has its dangers but there’s usually some element of controlling your own destiny. If a boxer lands one on the bull’s-eye it’s at least partially your own fault. You didn’t move fast enough. Fall off a bike downhill and it was your own balance and your own nerve that failed.

But in the middle of a scrum, or at the bottom of a ruck, or with a head-high tackle, there can be a fearful helplessness. The counter-argument is that if everyone does what they’re supposed to there isn’t a problem. But even a lifetime of dumb punting can’t stop that ‘if’ being one gamble too far.

It’s an old but hardy truth in most sports that the lower the standard the higher the risk of getting hurt. And one has to be very blasé indeed to be nonchalant at the idea of your kid buried underneath a heap of adolescent lummoxes with no real clue about what they’re doing.

Fundamental questions

It’s ironic how rugby’s profile in this country is peaking at the same time fundamental questions about the long-term future of a game rooted in physical collision are increasing too.

We have got used to regular warnings about the long-term implications of concussion for players. Desperately sad stories about injuries and even fatalities in schools rugby have become dispiritingly familiar. All of it raises questions about what constitutes an acceptable level of risk.

Rugby’s authorities will no doubt offer up reassurances to any new hinterland it pursues although how reassuring can anyone be about a sport so rooted in physical contact that diluting its dangers risks gelding it of meaning.

The stamp of that identity struggle was all over last month’s high-profile outburst by Geordan Murphy about the game going too PC. Murphy was admirably blunt and ultimately forced to issue a PR coated climb-down.

But if those within rugby who aspire to broadening its base are struggling to define an acceptable level of risk it will be no surprise if a lot of parents hear those four words and conclude they can do without adding even more stress to the rearing process.

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