Back in the mid 1980s I remember being involved in coaching one of Leinster’s less serious rugby schools in a cup quarter-final against one of Leinster’s super serious schools. The result went the way you would expect. What struck me was not just the gulf in skill and ability, but the handle the winning team had on how to control the pace of the game when it suited them.
They had a routine they used twice in the game which involved making a song and dance about setting to run a penalty, moving players this way and that, and then deciding after all that they would kick at goal. It was perfectly timed and choreographed and served to further demoralise their opponents.
Clearly this was not something they picked up off the street, and it reinforced how much thought and effort goes into the game from coaches at that level, and how some of it was nakedly cynical. If there was a trick of the trade, fair or foul, that could be imparted, then it was. I’m not suggesting that I was above the same carry-on.
It was a mystery then why it took those who run schools rugby so long to adopt the yellow card sanction. Long after it had been introduced at senior level, wholesale cheating was going unpunished in the schools game because the committee hadn’t the appetite to recognise it existed. Unquestionably the advent of yellow has helped.
And now, in a move that will set Ireland apart from their brethren in the other home countries, drug testing will be introduced at schools level. It is entirely appropriate.
The impetus for this is coming from the Irish Sports Council, who lob a few million Euro into IRFU coffers every year. Una May, the director of the council’s anti doping unit, says it is not about trying to catch kids out, rather to educate and regulate and save them from straying down the wrong path.
Rugby may not be Dr May’s big thing but she knows an anomaly when she sees one, and it doesn’t make sense to have under age athletes tested in other sports – camogie and cricket for example would have lots of teenagers playing on adult teams, and in both swimming and gymnastics it has been standard practice – and not rugby. Moreover she saw the positive steroid tests coming out the South African schools game and figured action here might be prudent.
The very essence of modern rugby is the drive to be fitter, faster and stronger. And given the natural competitiveness of young athletes to get ahead, to be better than their peers, rugby needs to get a handle on what’s going on.
The truth I suspect is that nobody is too sure what’s happening behind closed doors. Creatine was the craze of the 1990s in Irish schools, and anecdotal evidence suggests a stream of schools players now are loading up on supplements without having a rashers whether they are either appropriate or safe.
If the prospect of silverware on St Patrick’s Day wasn’t enough, the chance of a career in the pro game is enough now to bend the head of an ambitious young player clean out of shape. The prospect of testing can only help calm that down.
The key issues of course are education and implementation. Whatever about the first, you need resources to effect the second. And that’s before you get the cooperation of parents and administrators, which should be interesting.
So let’s see how this pans out, and how comprehensive is the plan. Certainly the idea is sound, for anything that keeps the schools game on the straight and narrow is worth pursuing.