One of rugby league’s brightest success stories in recent times has been the Champion Schools competition – the largest knockout rugby league tournament in the world no less.
Having first kicked off in 1981, since a modernising re-launch in 2002 it has cast league’s net far and wide, being open to every secondary school in England, Wales and Scotland. In which time the number of students taking to field – boys and girls – has climbed to not far short of 30,000.
From Year 7 to Year 11, it pitches like against like in its initial stages at least, is an excuse for regional and national festivals, and culminates in a big day out in London with the Year 7 final a curtain-raiser for the Challenge Cup final at Wembley and a parade around the stadium perimeter for finalists in other years.
That Year 7 game, of course, is played in memory of Steven Mullaney, the U11s player who, after catching the eye of TV audiences with a thrilling try for Wakefield Schools against St Helens in 1986, tragically lost his life in a traffic accident outside his school the following year.
Nowadays, we’d be unlikely to see anything like the 20,000 crowd that St Patrick’s of Wigan and St Bede’s of Widnes attracted to Central Park in 1926.
But nevertheless, the Champion Schools in all its forms has been a useful and enjoyable stamping ground for rising stars like Phil Clarke, Kevin Sinfield and Sam Tomkins in our more traditional areas, while clubs in further flung regions have also had the chance to impress, as High Wycombe’s Royal Grammar School did when they beat Castleford High, 44-4, in 2013.
Why only this morning, a press release dropped into my inbox from the Welsh Rugby League, informing us that Cardiff-based Welsh speaking school Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Glantaf are now just one game away from Wembley thanks to their dramatic 12-10 away win at Malet Lambert in Hull. They are off to Chorley next, and a neutral ground semi-final against St Bernard’s from Cumbria. And if they get there, they’ll be the second Welsh side to reach the Year 7 final in a decade, Brynteg of Bridgend having also done so – and won – in 2005, when Rhys and Ben Evans got themselves on the scoresheet.
Schools rugby league is undoubtedly a good thing then. So why am I bringing all of this up now?
This week in the British Medical Journal there was a story headlined ‘Concerns over UK government plan to increase participation in school rugby.’
In it, Professor Allyson Pollock and other health experts at Queen Mary University of London called on said leaders to “…ensure the safety and effectiveness of [school] sports,” claiming that the plans to grow both rugby league and rugby union in this way had not been informed by injury data.
“The high rates of injury in rugby union and rugby league for professional and amateur players, including children, are well established and a cause for medical concern,” the report began. “For example, around twelve per cent of child and adolescent rugby players sustain an injury severe enough to require at least seven days’ absence from playing in a season.
“Studies have found that most rugby injuries occur during the tackle but that scrums are the most dangerous phase of play. Recent rule changes, such as the introduction of non-contested scrums, may have reduced the number of permanently disabling spinal injuries, but their effectiveness has yet to be properly evaluated.
“However insufficient attention has been paid to the tackle as the major cause of injury in this collision sport.”
Now I don’t know about you, but the biggest surprise to me in all of this is not so much that a medical body is sounding off about medical matters. That is exactly what they are there to do. Health and safety can’t go quite mad enough when we are talking about the safety of children, right down to the wisdom of them not running in the corridors or only having crisps in their packed lunch.
Only recently, the league community has been united in support of young Hull KR fan Connor Lynes, who himself endured serious injury. It has been a pleasure and enormous relief to see him on the mend.
Nor is it any great surprise that our London-based medical experts appear fuzzy on the differences and demands between the two rugby codes.
No, the real surprise here is the news itself, ie that the UK government (and we must assume, I suppose, that the plans will proceed whatever happens at the ballot box on Thursday 7 May) has chosen league as one of the five sports it will use to increase the prominence of competitive school sports in England.
The government, says the BMJ, intends to put 1,300 links in place between schools and rugby union organisations and “a further 1,000” with rugby league.
As for Professor Pollock and Co: “Children are more susceptible to injuries such as concussion and often take longer to fully recover…” they warn. “Only by collecting injury data and by providing feedback to individuals and organisations working on safety initiatives will the short and long-term impact of injury prevention programmes, whether for rugby or any other sport, be known.”
As someone whose own son played rugby league from around six to fifteen years of age, I’ve always been of the view that life shouldn’t be lived in fear. Bumps and bruises are part of a child’s education, just as writing essays, reading books and painting pretty pictures for the fridge ought to be.
Such a plan to incorporate rugby league into more schools should indeed be to the nation’s great advantage. For over and above such worries, playing sport, even a physical and yes occasionally violent sport like rugby, has plenty of benefits too. There’s the instilling of courage, for a start. The value of teamwork. Fitness. Strategy. Stamina. Mathematical calculation even … I could go on.
It would be unwise to insist that every child participates in rugby league, when doing PE or whatever the subject is called nowadays. If there was ever a sport that demanded total commitment to being on the field of play, it is this one. Forcing anyone to play league that did not want to do so would be dangerous.
But then there is rugby league and rugby league – full on tackling and tag. And nor have I seen anyone suggest that participation would be compulsory.
Maybe reports like the BMJ’s are just one more sign that contact sports, as we have always known them, are on the way to becoming a thing of the past, soon to go the way of Lions, Christians and Gladiators. Maybe we are indeed set for a no risk future in which games are either watched on TV or played on computers.
Now that really would add insult to injury.
Tone’s Tips: Super League victories for Wigan, Leeds, Huddersfield, Saints, Catalan and Salford. Inspired by Challenge Cup draw, Super League to drop letter ‘e’ and letter ‘a’ and rebrand as Super Glue.