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The Wasps captain and England flanker recalls his school days – and makes the case for why effective coaching is the best way of preventing injuries on the playing field...
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Where did you go to school?
Initially I went to Papplewick Prep School in Ascot, which is the alma mater of Richard Curtis, the screenwriter and director. Then I moved on to Wellington College in Crowthorne. I’ve always been a homebody, but I actually loved boarding school.
I did everything – school plays, representing the chess team, every sport under the sun – and was lucky enough to come out the other end with good GCSE and A-Levels.
How was the transition between the schools?
Attending public school for the first time, with all those men-for-boys, was scary. I went straight into boarding, though, which helped, as I got to know my dorm mates pretty well. Certainly far quicker than if I’d been a day boy.
How would your teachers have described you?
Pretty much like I am now – very loud, hugely enthusiastic, positive and engaged with good banter, which could possibly be a bit cutting at times.
Did that ever get you into trouble?
Ha ha – when was I not in trouble? But I worked hard, which I’m sure was my saving grace. When I go back now I’m welcomed and fêted like the conquering hero; it always makes me smile. Thank goodness I was able to restore the family name!
What subjects were your favourites?
History, politics, English. I hated Maths with a passion. We didn’t have PE lessons as such, unless you chose to specialise in that subject, but we always enjoyed loads of sport every afternoon. I tried my hand at everything. I remember hitting a couple of centuries in cricket, and I was quite a competent fielder too. I was also captain of the field gun.
So what led you down the rugby route?
I actually never wanted to be a rugby player. I just started out playing for fun. It was only when the team I was playing for, Wellington Under-15s, won the Daily Mail Cup Final at Twickenham that I really started to enjoy it. It was probably all the limelight. After this I turned a corner and thought I might like to play the game a bit more, and it just snowballed from there.
What do you think about the idea of a complete ban on rugby tackling in schools?
It’s pretty simple – it’s nonsensical. Many people want to play rugby for all its values and merits. It’s a physical sport, and to remove that choice and take that element away from people is simply unfair. The problem, as with most things, is the reaction is disproportionate to the problem. It’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Is there an obvious solution?
In my opinion, it comes down to good, effective coaching. If children are taught how to tackle properly and safely then the issue – while it will never disappear completely in a fundamentally physical game – will diminish to a statistically ‘acceptable’ point.
I say ‘statistically’ because injuries are never acceptable, but like everything it’s about the control and management of risk. My firm belief is that if all kids who want to play our great game were correctly coached and taught, we would not be discussing this issue now, or indeed ever. By all means, allow parents to decide whether their child should play or not – but banning tackling outright is just wrong.
Is the issue any different from the risk of injury in gymnastics, cricket, cycling to school or even lessons like chemistry?
I don’t know what the stats are in comparison with other sports, but life is risky. That’s a simple, universally acknowledged fact. People have died and been badly injured playing all sports, none more so than golf. Are they proposing to ban golf as well? If you have proper technique, medical care and good coaching, everything becomes as safe as it possibly can be.
What sort of training would be required to teach the proper techniques?
You need the kids to be taught the best way to tackle and to fall, and how to do both safely. You then need to make sure that medical and support staff are in attendance for all games and that they’re all up to scratch. You can’t stop freak or random injuries happening; you can only try your best to prevent them through education, awareness and good training. This applies in all walks of life.
What would you say are the benefits of playing rugby, or any sport, at school?
Playing sport at a young age is very important for so many reasons. The main one being that it encourages children to participate with others and to get involved. It gives them exercise, provides them with interests, teaches teamwork, communication skills and moral values and encourages responsibility. They also get to experience the importance and joy of winning, managing disappointment through losses – the list just goes on.
The fundamental thing is that through sport, one understands the world is a very competitive place. Rather than shielding kids from this, it opens up and engenders the opportunities, values and disciplines required for later life.
James Haskell’s training ebook, Introduction to Becoming and Remaining RugbyFit, is available now in print and ebook editions; for more information, visit www.jameshaskell.com or follow @jameshaskell
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