For those of you who don’t know, rugby is a violent game. It is an intermediate step between soccer and (American) football. Like football, it is a high-contact sport. But, like soccer or basketball, it is a continuous motion sport. There are no downs, no blockers, and no heavy pads. Players carry the ball in their hands and – when they do – they can expect to be tackled.
This is my ninth year coaching high school rugby, and this is by far the most worried I’ve ever been going into a season. Our first match has been moved up a week from previous years. It’s now the last week of March instead of the first week of April. Further complicating matters is the aftermath of Winter Storm Saturn, which cost us our first week of outdoor practice. We are also currently coaching the least experienced team we’ve ever had. So we’re effectively trying to take a group of young men who have never played rugby before and prepare them for their first match with two weeks’ less time than we really need.
In 2012, twelve of our fifteen varsity starters were experienced players. And most of those twelve were returning starters. A year ago we could have absorbed this lost practice time and still felt confident that we could put fifteen players on the pitch who knew what they were doing and who were physically able to protect themselves. This year, we don’t have that luxury. Only three varsity starters return from last year’s team. We could end up with ten or more first-year players on our starting side on opening day. Forcing them on to the pitch before they’re ready is like throwing someone into a pool without teaching them how to swim.
So, we have to ask ourselves as coaches, at what point does it become fundamentally unsafe for us to play?
Assuming we can put a side on the field, the most difficult choices we’re facing come down to who that team should be made up of. On the one hand, we can load the field with as many returning players as we have so we can feel comfortable in their knowledge of the game and its rules. The other option is to put as many of our best and strongest athletes as possible on the pitch so that we can feel secure in their ability to protect themselves physically.
Under the circumstances, it would seem like the obvious choice is to give the nod to experience. On opening day we should field a side made up of players who know what they’re doing and thus will not endanger themselves or their teammates. But here’s where it gets dicey: Most of our returning players are among the worst and most timid athletes on our team. And our best and most able-bodied young men are almost entirely new to the game.
Do we start an experienced player who knows the rules and knows how we want to see the game played, but whose lack of physicality and aggression is likely to get him or a teammate hurt? Or do we start a new player who’s willing to hit and who’s strong enough to get hit, but who will spend the first match learning the game on the fly and whose ignorance might get him or an opponent hurt?
Or do we forfeit?
Ego aside, it’s damn difficult to tell thirty teenage boys that the time, effort, and sacrifice that’s already gone into the upcoming season and this opening match were all for nothing. They’ll want to play, no matter what.
But we’ll need to be ready to play.
Our remaining practices will focus solely on the most fundamental aspects of the game. We will know how to run the ball hard and how to protect ourselves while we’re doing it. We will know how to pass and to catch, and to do both without endangering ourselves or our teammates. We will know how to tackle, and how to do it both without fear and without injury. We will know how to engage in scrums and to boost in line-outs without putting ourselves or our opponents in harm’s way.
Strategy and game-planning will be out the window. Our attack and defense will need to be kindergarten-basic. And that simplicity may cost us the match. But winning has to be a secondary concern. Our goal right now is simply to play the game and to play it safely.
And we have only three more practices to make it happen.