David O’ Connor speaks passionately about all that is wrong with schools rugby in Ireland.

No one does drama quite like Munster. Last Saturday’s final phase raid will rival any achievement managed by this drama addicted province to date and let’s face facts, there have been quite a few. J.J Hanrahan’s last gasp try reminded us all of why we love rugby and why we love Munster down in these parts. However, my love for this game and the intoxicating fervour of Heineken cups, Six Nations and World cups has always been tinged with a sense of discomfiture.

I’m not quite sure why it has always been there, it probably has something to do with my background in youth work or the fact that I attended a rugby school and got to see a few things that just didn’t sit well with me. I love the game, but I fear for the safety of both the adults and the youngsters who play this game.

What really has brought these feelings to the surface recently is the story of Ben Robinson. For those who don’t know. Ben was a 14 year old boy who died as result of injuries sustained on a rugby pitch. A coroner determined that he died from second impact syndrome. This presents itself when a concussed person receives another blow to the head. The blow doesn’t even have to be significant. In Ben’s case, he was allowed to play on in a schools rugby match, even though he was clearly concussed and assessed at pitch side on three occasions. One of the boys playing alongside Ben was quoted as saying: ‘He couldn’t even remember what the score was’.

There has been a protracted case involving Ben’s family, the IRFU and Ben’s school. What resulted from this case was that the IRFU and Ben’s school didn’t particularly cover themselves in glory.

The case also raised some serious questions about where this game is headed. Schools rugby now resembles American High School football more than ever. Kids from the age of 13 are given training regimes, diets and are taking supplements. These kids are then asked to play to a ferocious intensity, which puts enormous strain on their juvenile bodies. Sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Until recently, when a catastrophic injury was incurred by a teenager, it received minimal coverage and was seen as a freak occurrence. The IRFU would release a limp statement disavowing all responsibility and we move on. Hurrah.

Another parallel is the hiring of paid coaches for Secondary School teams. These coaches are expected to pick a winning team and guide them to success. If they don’t, the school will find someone who can.

So the question can be asked. If a star player is clearly dazed, where does the coach’s priority lay? Take the boy off and certainly lose or let him ‘shake it off’ and win the game for the team?

There is also a bullish and ignorant aspect to schools rugby. Yes, there are modern day coaches who are versed in physiology and psychology, but there are also some dinosaurs coaching and refereeing the game. These men, who played themselves in their youth have little pity for kids who get a knock on the head, sure in their day all sorts went on, they just manned up. There is hardly any relationship left between the game they played and what kids play nowadays.

The callous ignorance and the callous professionalism must be removed from schools rugby. Professional rugby players are now commodified gladiators who are part of enormous squads. These men are normally given no more than two year contracts as the likelihood of career threatening injury always looms large. They can be discarded and replaced. This is a sickening attitude and must not be allowed to permeate down through the levels.

This, perhaps, is where my discomfiture stems from. Anytime I’m screaming my loaf off in the North Terrace these are the thoughts that are swirling around my head.

Pundit Arena, David O’ Connor.

Featured Image By Simon_sees from Australia (School rugby pitch Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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