All Black Jerome Kaino's Masterclass at Clayesmore School on Tackling Rugby's Rough Edge
Wednesday, 31 January 2024
From ruck to reboot: Sam Peters looks for a game-changing playbook at a Dorset school with Jerome Kaino’s evasion clinic as a beacon for change.
The headlines surrounding rugby union’s safety record have been pretty dreadful for the past decade or more. I should know – I’ve been responsible for many of them. Having witnessed the sport morph from a physically demanding amateur game into an extreme version of its former self following the onset of professionalism in 1995, I spent more than 15 years as a national newspaper reporter, including four as rugby correspondent at the Mail on Sunday and two more at the Sunday Times, warning anyone who would listen that rugby’s risk profile was becoming intolerable. But for much of that time, it felt like I was screaming in an empty room. In August last year, still convinced there was a problem, I published a book: Concussed; Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth, recounts the many battles I’d fought within the sport to raise the alarm about concussion and other injuries, and my hope rugby could one day revert to an evasion-based sport enjoyed by players of all shapes and sizes. In November, it was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.
It starts in Dorset... A legal case involving more than 300 former professional players, alleging the sport’s governing bodies were negligent in their handling of concussion following the onset of professionalism, hardly bodes well. Some fear if the sport doesn’t act decisively to reduce injury risk, rugby as we know it may not even exist in two decades' time. While some have sought to dismiss and denigrate those involved in the legal case, others, me included, believe it could be the catalyst for much-needed change that helps depower the sport, reduce collisions, and educate players to prize skill and evasion over brute power and force. Anecdotally, parents are increasingly concerned about concussion rates, which have spiked in the past 20 years as professionalism has encouraged players to become bigger, faster, and stronger. Inevitably, levels of participation in schools is being hit as a result.
Unquestionably, change is already beginning to happen. In January, something quite remarkable happened here in Dorset, at Clayesmore School. Former New Zealand star Jerome Kaino, the holder of two World Cup winner’s medals and no fewer than 83 All-Black caps, schooled dozens of young players from around the West Country in the lost art of evasion. How to explore space and, in doing so, reduce collisions on the field. Players and staff from Bath and Stade Toulousain academies joined a training session which, while held on a bitingly cold January morning, could not fail to warm the soul of anyone who cares about rugby’s long-term future. A very different style watched by a collection of interested parties including Clayesmore’s rugby-loving head teacher, Jo Thomson, head of games, Dan Conway, and head of rugby, Richard Dixon, the players hung on every word the 40-year-old Kaino uttered and followed every direction given. ‘We (Stade Toulousain) love to keep the ball alive, and the more time we can do that, without going into rucks or contact, the more beneficial that can be,’ Kaino said. Dixon added: ‘You see a lot of rugby which is not about space, it’s about collisions. We’re more interested in teaching our boys there is another way to do this. Use your brain. Create space, use space.’
No doubt sensing the opportunity to impress, boys from Clayesmore, Monkton Combe, and St. Edwards Bath were willing participants in a session demonstrating a very different style to the simplistic collision-based game many modern coaches are fixated by – but eschewed by legendary Toulouse and France coach Pierre Villepreux. Improving tackle techniques to reduce concussions was also a focus. ‘I am a huge believer in the importance of rugby and the values it can instill in young people,’ Thomson told me. ‘But the data you show in your book is hard to argue with. Rather than bury our heads in the sand, we want to look for solutions to parental concerns about the risks of playing rugby. We want to safeguard the future of this brilliant game.’ With other schools around the country also looking to address safety concerns, it feels as if change will be driven not by reluctant and conflicted governing bodies but by forward-thinking educational establishments such as Clayesmore, willing to tackle the most challenging conversations and institute change accordingly. And if they do, perhaps those headlines will change for the better. I, for one, dearly hope so.