Principal called me in Monday morning, after we’d giant-killed a major school’s rugby team on the Saturday. “We’ve had a complaint from D____ School about you. They don’t wish to play us again while you’re in charge of the team.”
“They say you’re far too competitive. At this level [under 14], it should all be about sportsmanship and skills, they say. I wonder how much it’s to do with our winning the game?”
“If I hadn’t concentrated on skills with those kids for weeks, months, years, we’d never have been enable to beat a school with those numbers. Did they say I’d cheated, used illegal tactics, told our kids to do anything dirty?”
“Not as such. They said you didn’t act within the spirit of the game.”
“Meaning I should have coached them to just play as if it was a training drill, in a spirit of love and mutual understanding, the kids would have been thrashed and we’d have to chalk it up to life’s rich pageant and acceptance of the natural pecking order, as Leeds do? Look, it was raining on Saturday. I taught us to cause breakdowns wherever possible and take advantage of them, to kick along the ground. If it’s dry next Saturday, we’ll carry the ball and chain pass.”
“They say you’re far too aggressive.”
“I’m a model of politeness at the pre-game cuppa, we joke and discuss rugby but equally, we’re there to win the game. It’s part of the season’s competition and we’d like to be mid-table and not languishing down the bottom. This is so much hypocrisy on their part.
On the field, I teach the kids to be ball aggressive. If any of our kids has a go at the man, he’s hauled off. Eyes are always on the ball, we play within the rules, we don’t drop knees into players behind the play as they do and they have the nerve to accuse us of bad sportsmanship. They’re a far more powerful school and I prepared our kids to have a sporting chance. We won. Our kids are over the moon that their efforts produced that.”
“But is that sportsmanship?”
“Playing hard at the ball, never letting up, using strategy, staying within the rules? Yes, that’s sportsmanship.”
“It’s your on-field tactics they don’t like.”
“These kids are under a certain age and their skills, while improving, are not those of our first team. I recognize our kids can only do so much and tell them that. Yet there are things U14 can do and the strategy to win the game, given the material we have, is my job. That’s what I’m there for. To let our kids know that their best can win a game or at least run it close.”
“And if we’d lost?”
“To say, ‘Oh well, that’s life,’ and move on to Wednesday.”
“Do the boys know that?”
“Absolutely. At the start of the season, I sat them down and asked which they wanted. To go around and get a hiding as we used to do every weekend and Wednesday or to play a brand of ball that can take advantage of errors on the part of the opposition, that meant we’d have to skills train a lot and get fit but the results would eventually give them great satisfaction? You know it’s taken two years to get that team where they are now. And don’t I run around with them on the track too, not from the touchline? What that school doesn’t mention is that our kids came to that game with an esprit-de-corps, a gleam in the eye and a ruthless attack on the ball at all costs. It would be madness to do less against a school like that.”
“At all costs?” He was quiet for a bit, then said. “They don’t like it. Horns of a dilemma. I happen to agree in principle on how to play the game but as we have to play these schools and they have a set of “spirit of the game” rules which ensures that the top schools always win, your little moves are seen as distinctly unwelcome.”
“Then they can get knotted. We played within the rules, we used tactics appropriate to that age level – it would have been lunacy to hope our kids could carry off the first team moves – plenty of time for them in future years, I looked after our kids – K**** came off when he was shivering under our rules of interchange which I thoroughly agree with to keep the kids in good condition.”
“The district is changing the end of season tournament to October, so stop us training our kids over a full season.”
“Yes, I heard. And then they talk of sportsmanship. They’re the greatest hypocrites I’ve ever seen – it’s all to do with giving their own kids a chance to win.”
“Yes it is – that everyone gets a chance of success.”
“Pardon me but that’s not my brief. My brief is that their kids don’t get a chance to win, unless they train hard and play hard, as we do. Moderation is imbecility on a field. I teach our flankers that if they don’t go in with maximum prejudice, they’ll injure themselves. Going in with hard contact at a soft point on them and hanging on like a terrier protects our kids’ shoulders and heads and doesn’t cripple the opponent – it just knocks him off his stride. If it’s a big kid, their star, then three of our kids gang tackle him in a scissors, like wolves.”
He saw the point but equally, in his position, couldn’t accept it. I helped out with the first team the following week, taking care of the forwards.
Would I ever have told our kids to throw a game for tactical reasons? Never in a million years. I might have failed to devise strategies, on the day, to counter certain plays of theirs and let nature take its course – perhaps. But as far as the players went – it was full on the whole time. Should they have been sent home, those Asian women? Depends how much of it was down to them and how much down to their associations.
If one of their kids went down, one of ours would be the first to attend to him, to help him.
Is sport bad for kids, in the sense of developing ruthlessness at the ball? I agree there are bad parents and coaches with a win-at-all-costs attitude which lets them step over the line. We know the opposition were telling their pack to do things to our boys to nobble them – I never once allowed our kids to do that – we wanted to win hard, not dirty.
I think that as long as we can step back from the game after it’s over, seeing it all as a game at the end, then within the game time, 100% is the only way to go.