A prestigious school which has nurtured some of Scottish rugby’s most illustrious names has withdrawn from a raft of fixtures amid fears that the gulf in size between players could lead to its pupils being injured.
Glenalmond College, which counts former national captains David Sole, David Leslie, and Rob Wainwright among its alumni, has taken the decision based on the “degree of risk” faced by “small and light” members of its first XV.
As a result, the leading independent school’s traditional derby against its Perthshire rivals Strathallan is one of several fixtures that will not go ahead this season.
The move, which comes amid ongoing nationwide efforts by Scottish Rugby (SRU) to safeguard young players from serious injury, has been welcomed by a current Scotland international, who warned that the disparities in size between teenagers can be “massive.”
Glenalmond announced the changes in a half-term letter sent out to parents by its Warden, Gordon Woods, citing “very considerable amount of parental and staff concern” at the size differences in several of the school’s first XV games last season.
He pointed out the changes would impact “slightly” on the side’s fixture list for the new season, with the school not playing Strathallan, Loretto, or George Watson’s.
He wrote: “I would like to stress that this decision was based purely on grounds of safety relating to the risk of physical injury; it was certainly not about winning or losing a game of rugby.
“Our decision is about the degree of risk and particularly in highly competitive 1st XV fixtures. I should add that these issues are being faced by heads up and down the length of the UK.”
Woods said he made the “difficult decision” after having “consulted widely” with parents at the end of the last season, particularly those with sons in the first XV, several of whom will be returning next year.
“We are confident that we are building the foundations for a bright future, not only on the rugby field but for sport in a more general sense,” he added in his letter to parents, pointing to a revamped coaching structure and a new strength and conditioning facility.
Last autumn, Glenalmond suffered a 79-0 defeat at the hands of what coach Huw Thomas described as a “very physical and imposing” Strathallan side. The team also lost 67-0 to George Watson’s and 52-7 against Loretto.
Asked in more detail about the changes, Woods told Scotland on Sunday: “Strength testing of younger players sets a minimum base line, but it is at the other end of the scale where we believe the greatest risks may lie at school boy level. We have a talented group of rugby players but they are small and light in some key front five positions. The decisions for 2013 are based on what we know of the relative physical differences in the squads, except the George Watson’s fixtures which this year have been affected only by calendar issues at their end.”
Three years ago, Scottish Rugby unveiled reforms to prevent physically immature players playing against and with physically mature players. The policy prevents boys who have not yet turned 16 from playing with or against players who are aged 16 and over as they would “be exposed to an increased risk”.
The changes followed a spate of serious injuries suffered by young players. In 2009, a 14-year-old at Stewart’s Melville lost the use of an arm after suffering a neck injury, while the previous year, a 17-year-old at Merchiston Castle suffered serious spinal injuries.
The Scotland international centre, Sean Lamont, recalled how he came up against far larger boys during his schooldays. “I was quite small when I was younger, about 5ft 6in at the age of 16 or 17,” he said. “The gulf can be massive when you’re a teenager. I was a late developer, but I was playing against guys who were huge.
“Psychologically, there’s nothing worse at that age when you see an opponent with a full-grown beard.
“It’s basic physics – you get someone that much bigger running at you it’s going to hurt. If the gulf in size is so big that the school is concerned about it, I think they’re doing the right thing.”
Eric Peters, the former Scotland captain, said: “It’s a difficult one. Obviously you want to make sure players are safe, and at school level, you introduce scrums at a certain age.
“Quite often Scotland players have been a lot smaller in terms of weight compared with the opponents they’ve played, but ultimately, that’s part of the challenge in adapting the style of your play to the personnel you have.”
John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said schools take player safety “very seriously,” and that many factors were involved in differences between teams. “It depends on things like whether the players are early or late arrivals into a year group or whether you have international boarders who are bigger than others. You may get new directors of sport and rugby starts to pick up in a particular school, or they’ve made more of an effort in terms of physical conditioning. It’s not an issue we really have a remit in, it’s a discussion between the schools and the SRU in terms of cup and league involvement. In that respect, the schools organise the fixtures on a school by school case.”
Colin Thomson, director of operations at Scottish Rugby, said: “Rugby is a contact sport so you’re never going to eliminate the risk, but it’s incumbent on coaches, teachers, and officials to teach children in a safe environment.”