Sex, violence, class, power, politics – the school rugby row has it all

by Stuart Jeffries
The idea of a ban on tackling in school rugby is easy enough to defend or decry – but my experiences of the scrum on a grammar school playing field in 1970s Birmingham tells me this can be a truly formative game

There are two ways of taking a man down in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), as the forbiddingly buff actor Tom Hardy once explained to me. He was trying to account for the crypto-erotic ending of his 2011 film Warrior, in which two estranged siblings come together and sort out their differences in an MMA ring.

One is by punching and kicking in the style favoured by Hardy’s on-screen brother, played by Joel Edgerton; the other is by a kind of martial hugging that Hardy’s character deployed, using chokeholds, smotherings and other up-close-and-personal moves to subdue one’s opponent. The latter style, at least in Hardy’s film, expressed – for all the seeming sibling hostility – a longing for love; a desperate, if unconscious, desire to hold and be held.

Related: UK health experts call for ban on tackling in school rugby

Hardy’s distinction came to mind this week during the dispute over the future of rugby. When 70 doctors and academics sent an open letter to ministers calling for a ban on tackling in school rugby matches – citing the statistic that two thirds of injuries in youth rugby and most concussions are down to tackles – some responses from within the game were predictably defensive. Former England international Jon Sleightholme, for example, stooped to Trumpian trope in calling the signatories “bleeding-heart liberals”.

Other defenders of contact rugby were more thoughtful. Jonny Cross, a sports teacher at Congleton high school – where rugby is compulsory from the age of 11 – argued that teaching young players the proper postures in scrums helps minimise injuries , a technique known as “tower of power”. He added that the game does and should involve physical challenge that helps build character. “There is a ‘boy factor’ – it’s partly about developing masculinity,” said Cross. There’s no need to be sexist: girls who enjoy rugby are presumably developing something personally desirable, too; only misogynists would call it masculinity.

This year’s Six Nations tournament gives lots of evidence for both sides in the argument. The Wales-France game last week was a scarcely watchable thriller in which hospitalisation was repeatedly, virtuosically averted. And in part, no doubt, that was thanks to the kind of training Cross extols.

But let’s not get carried away. Watching an earlier match in which French lock Yoann Maestri take out Ireland’s Jonny Sexton by smashing his elbow into the fly-half’s head and knocking him to the floor made me wonder how this sort of off-the-ball enforcer’s violent attack will be replicated in the junior game. Truly, if you tolerate this, your children will be next.

Should, then, school rugby be like paying restaurant bills – increasingly contactless? “If you take the tackle out of rugby, what have you got left?” asked former England international Matt Perry rhetorically. Well, you have the kind of tag rugby my 10-year-old daughter plays at primary school.

But in any case, Perry’s question misunderstands rugby. It isn’t all tackles. Rather, it’s a game of two halves. Rugby is like Love in Plato’s Symposium: once, Zeus cut our bodies in two in punishment for some affront to the deities, and the resulting humans were forced to roam the world questing to find their other halves. The halves initially sundered in Tom Hardy’s film Warrior – the hugger and the hitter, the naked aggression and the sublimated sexuality, the tackle and the embrace, the sex and the violence – are brought together in rugby.

What gets lost in the current discussion about rugby safety is what most astounded me when I played the game under duress at my grammar school. I was shocked not so much by the risk of breaking my neck or damaging my brain as by how physically intimate you needed to be. Can it really be 40 years since I reached between my classmate’s legs and grabbed him hard near the groin? Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain. As the number eight at the back of the scrum, that was how you gripped your teammate. You reach past his genitals (ideally) and grab him by the scruff of his shirt. It there’s a more homoerotic move in sport, please let me know.

My primary-school peers and I were just not ready for this. We were raised in the Black Country, then as now a place where small boys aspired to become football stars and, or so we imagined, homophobic ones. None of the twinkle-toed virtuosity we had witnessed from our football heroes – Wolves’ target man Derek “the Doog” Dougan, West Brom’s stirringly nicknamed Tony “Bomber” Brown – could prepare us for rugby’s bit of the other. Playing it certainly developed my masculinity. Indeed, it made me the man I am today – confused, risk-averse in fight scenarios, and unwilling to put my head between the buttocks of two men. Unless, perhaps, the money is right.

Enough distancing irony: I will never (probably) hold a man as physically close as I did with my team-mates as we drove to the line while dusk fell over a muddy field in Birmingham in the autumn of 1977. Perhaps rugby, for all its reputation for violence, gave us boys a little mutual tenderness that we would otherwise never have experienced. What I got a few years later with girls – a fulfilment of the desire to hold and be held – was, perhaps, prefigured in the pubescent scrum.

Related: The great rugby union debate: should tackling be banned at school level?

Rugby changed me in another way. I still don’t really understand the rules – a ruck is different from a maul, right? – and hearing Brian Moore’s explanations of why penalties are awarded only makes me more confused, but its ideological function was and is clear. To go to grammar school was, as Richard Hoggart wrote in The Uses of Literacy, to make one “uprooted and anxious” for life. Rugby was one useful means of deracinating me and my classmates, uprooting us from football’s (at the time) working-class culture and then – or at least this was the seeming aim – making us useful to the existing order.

How? Across the years comes unbidden Paul Weller’s sarcastic prole wail against Etonian übermensch. “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest / What chance have you got against a tie and a crest,” he snarled on the Jam’s 1979 single Eton Rifles. Thus understood, starting to play rugby was, for some English boys of my generation, a gentile bar mitzvah inducting us into a grim adult world of responsibilities. We were to learn, in the ritualised violence of rugby, the team skills and ruthlessness necessary to keep Britons rising up and overthrowing capitalism.

What had worked on the playing fields of schools like Eton and Rugby was retooled in order to help uphold the status quo in post-imperial Britain, in grammar schools as much as private ones, to keep socialism from being realised. No wonder Eton Rifles – albeit presumably aberrantly decoded as triumphal hymn to Conservative victory in class war – is our old-Etonian prime minister’s favourite song.

If you’re not English, or if you favour league over union, maybe none of the foregoing resonates. No matter. The important thing is that if you consider rugby sympathetically, you’ll realise it’s about more than tackling, appreciate that it’s more than just sport. It broaches nearly everything important – sex, violence, class, control, caring, tenderness, power, solidarity, politics, beauty, honour and shame. It’s about more than 30 lunkheads beating seven kinds of nonsense out of each other – although it is that, too, and now more so than ever.