So we're clear: rugby is the toughest of team sports. At the adult level, it's ninety minutes of mostly nonstop running punctuated by pushing, shoving, tackling and getting tackled, all without pads. An adult American football player runs about 200 yards per game; an adult rugby player runs about five miles per game. You play defense, so you will tackle; you also play offense, so you will be tackled.
So we're clear: rugby for 8 year olds is a slightly different beast. It's two 15 minute halves, two-hand touch, and the coaches are on the field, directing the kids, telling them to stay in a line, don't pass the ball forward, and don't stop running. It's the game stripped down to the very basics: passing, catching, running, forming a straight line across the field when defending, staggering diagonally when on the attack. The rough stuff comes later. Still, when you get fourteen kids on a field chasing after one ball, there's gonna be some collisions. Most of the time they're accidental.
My boys had played two back-to-back games that morning, and they were feeling it. It was opening day, and while we'd been practicing for a few weeks, the intensity and pace of actual game play had worn them down. They'd had an hour to rest before their third and final game. Two of them - Lucas and another kid whose dad coached the club's U10 side - were second-year veterans. The rest were new to the game. They were loving it, but they were tired. And they had one game to go, against a team from Orange County that had twice our numbers - plenty of fresh legs to sub in. I had two substitutes. It was going to be a slog. But that's rugby.
"Take a knee, boys", I told them before kickoff. "You guys have played hard today. I'm really, really proud of all of you." Not a lie - we won our first game, lost our second, but the kids played as a team, listened to me and my assistant coach, and had a blast. They were slightly glassy-eyed, but grinning in anticipation. "Let's go out, focus on what we've learned, play our best, and good things will happen. Circle up." We stood, put our hands in, yelled our team name - "THUNDER!!!" - and took the field.
And then things went south.
Rugby at this level is - or is supposed to be - academic, in the literal sense. U8 (kids eight and under) teams play "friendlies" - the coaches share referee duties, and take the time during the game to teach kids on both teams the rules and skills they need to learn. Yes, there are winners and losers, but that takes a back seat to getting the kids excited about the game and the culture that surrounds it.
I'd watched the opposing team's coach during an earlier game, and the warning bell went off; he was scouting one of the other teams during their game, conferring with one of his assistants, pointing out certain players, plotting strategy. Eight year olds, dude, I thought. I wondered if he'd even played - rugby players at any age have a look about them, a hard-won confidence mixed with an almost jovial air; cameraderie is the cornerstone of rugby culture, and winning and losing take a backseat to the game itself. This guy looked like an over-the-hill junior high gym teacher, and he wasn't having any of that touchy-feely crap. I introduced myself - "Hi, I'm Jason. Nice to meet you, Coach". His response: "Yeah, hi." Typically, when coaches act as refs, one team's coach does one half, then switches with the other team's coach. This guy wasn't having any of that. "No, I'll go ahead and ref the whole game. I'm fair." The bells became klaxons.
And so it went, a few non-calls and a few bad ones, all of which benefitted his team in some way - a missed tag here, an out-of-bounds call there. My kids were still not savvy enough to know that they were being hosed; none of the wins or loses counted towards any kind of championship or trophy, so I gritted my teeth and encouraged the boys to play on. At the half we were down by three tries (touchdowns, in Yankee parlance). My boys were dirty, sweaty, tired, and looking to me for direction. They don't care if they lose, but they don't particularly like it. I reminded them of one simple strategy - stay on the line when defending, and the other team won't - can't - score on you.
And so they did, befuddling the other team. Every time they passed, the receiving player was face to face with one of my kids. There was no place for them to go. Meanwhile, my kids got their second wind, and quickly scored two tries. And that's when it got ugly. One of their players started "tagging" with his shoulder, running right through my kids. Once, twice, three times, all in full view of his coach/"ref", who did nothing. He tried it with Lucas, who was nimble enough to sidestep him, but still caught an elbow. "WHAT WAS THAT?!" he yelled at the kid, at me, at the other coach.
There is proably a long list of things I should have done. Call for a game stoppage and politely ask the coach to instruct his player on the rules, maybe.
But I'd had enough of this shit.
"Next time he tries that", I said to Lucas, loud enough for the other coach to hear, "plant your feet and put your shoulder into him."
The coach waddled over to me. "Hey", he said, patting me condescendingly on the shoulder, "we don't play like that." "Really", I shot back. "Then you need to control your player or get him off the field. Because I'm not going to let my boys get knocked around." He blinked. And sent his player off. With that, the game resumed, we scored one more try, and ended up with a hard-won draw. The post-game Gatorade tasted pretty good.
Here's the truth - I was bothered by how that game had unfolded for a few days; the other coach embodied everything I hate about youth sports, and its tendency to attract frustrated has-beens and never-weres. But I don't feel bad at all about telling Lucas to knock that other kid on his ass. So we're clear: rugby is a tough sport, and at some point, players need to learn to stand fast or they'll get knocked over. They need to protect themselves. At every point, the coach needs to protect his team.