Wednesday 21 March 2018

How rugby turns boys into men

There is a dark side to the sport, evidenced by the recent decision to test for drugs at schoolboy level, but the game's brute force is a good thing for teen boys to experience

David Coleman

David Coleman

My eldest son, who started secondary school in September, has just begun playing rugby. It is a decision he came to without any influence from his mum or me. Mind you, I love that he now plays it, and what I've found particularly interesting are the reasons why I love that he plays rugby.

Rugby, more than other sport, has meaning for me. That meaning is tied up in the nature of the game and the controlled aggression expressed by players. Rugby professes a maleness, a machismo, that is different to other sports.

It seems to me that while other sports require physical strength and a toughness to play them well, rugby is alone in our culture as a game that demands a personal willingness to literally throw yourself at the opposition.

I see this difference between rugby and other sports more regularly now. For example, hurling is a tough game and since living in Co Clare I have witnessed the occasional brutality and physical attrition that comes with wielding hurleys in the passionate pursuit of your parish's honour.

Nevertheless, manhandling your opponent and wrestling him to the ground to try to take the ball from him is not the main aim of hurling (well not if the referee is alert anyway!).

Rugby differs. Rugby requires you to individually show your greater strength in a direct one-to-one match-up of physical power. I think this is at the heart of why I am so pleased that my son has started to play rugby.

To use the expression, when push comes to shove, men want to show their power and rugby provides an ideal and legitimate forum to do exactly that.

So, my son and I were talking the other day about the recent announcement that there will soon be drug testing at schools rugby level and why the IRFU and the Sports Council deem it necessary to test for drugs among this age group.

We guessed at what the different drugs might be, and why some teenage boys might be taking drugs to enhance their bodies and their performance.


It seems to me that schoolboys are expected to graduate into the adult game fully formed and physically mature and ready to go into battle. Boys need to become men very quickly on the rugby field. Maybe some of them want to get there faster, or feel fully physically formed by the time they get there.

There is definitely a sense in rugby, more than other sports, of being on a developmental trajectory from boyhood to manhood. Maybe drugs are creeping in as a means of short-circuiting this process.

This troubles me because I like that concept that boys must traverse to manhood. Boys don't suddenly become men -- they must explore and experiment with aspects of their masculinity and their maleness.

If drugs are already a feature within rugby and are an attempt to cheat nature and fast-track physical development, then there will be an emotional and psychological lag where these aspects will not keep pace with a prematurely enhanced body.

Camille Paglia, a US academic, commented on masculinity: "A woman simply is, but a man must become. Masculinity is risky and elusive. It is achieved by a revolt from woman, and it is confirmed only by other men."

Even the phrase "a man's man" echoes this; it speaks of a man who has been vetted, understood and accepted by other men. I always feel that it refers to a man who reaches some elusive standard where other men can acknowledge him and determine that he can be part of the group now.

I grew up wanting to be a man's man but wondered how to get there. I went to a rugby-playing school but I never played the game. I went to one training session, had a form of a panic attack that got diagnosed as asthma, and then was excused from rugby thereafter, even though it was a compulsory sport.

I am sure that my mother thought I was exaggerating my breathlessness on that first afternoon, but I guess she was happy enough for me not to play rugby. I think lots of mothers may like the game, but only for other people's children to take part in.

The risk of serious injury to your own offspring seems to leave mothers shuddering at the thought of their sons hurling themselves into the fray.


I look back now and I wonder about my breathlessness. I believe there was more to it than asthma, although I do have bad lungs even now as an adult. At the time I think I was simply afraid to play.

I wasn't afraid to play the game per se, but I was afraid to play tough, and to play hard and to assert myself with the other lads. I look back and I reckon I wimped out.

Even then I felt my decision not to play rugby marked me out as softer and less male. Not playing was not the defining moment of my personal 'diary of a wimpy kid', but it was certainly part of it.

Growing up, it was so much easier to carry the persona of a man's man, I believed, when you played rugby. But I 'couldn't' play rugby and so, in the wonderfully tangled, neurotic and turbulent searching for identity that every teenager experiences, I often wondered was I man enough.

Lads who played rugby seemed so much more assured, more confident, more settled than I felt. Indeed, looking back I believed that they didn't even have any of the same uncertainties, doubts or quandaries about their developing identities.

They were rugby players, plain and straightforward, and for me looking from the outside that said it all.

From what I could see they had a much more simplified route to forming their identity. By playing rugby they seemed to magically give out clear messages about their strength, power, sexuality and status. In retrospect it may have been a very two-dimensional view of male identity, but at least it was clear.

My world didn't seem that clear or unambiguous and I longed to have a definitive sense of who I was. Maybe mine was a unique teenage experience but I doubt it.

I always believed, however, that the lads who played rugby didn't ever seem to doubt who they were. I am sure this was just an attribution on my part, however, because I now believe that all teenagers struggle with forming their identity -- I think they all carry some level of insecurity and neuroticism.


So as a child and a teen rugby embodied an idealised view of men and manhood that at the time I felt I couldn't measure up to. But thankfully age, true maturity and a healthy amount of soul-searching and lived experiences have clarified, for me, who I am. I don't carry the doubts, the confusion and the turbulence of those years anymore.

But my son choosing to play rugby brought it all back. I am delighted because I think it is a good game for boys to play. I like the fact that he can engage in a really physical competition with other boys without resorting to uncontrolled violence.

I like the fact that rugby is a sport that shares the values of teamwork, relying on others and the commitment to a shared goal.

I like the fact that he will be exercising regularly, thinking healthily about his body, balancing out his academic efforts.

But these are the positive values about rugby that were immediately within my awareness. I know now that part of my delight was my less conscious feeling of relief that his route to manhood might be simpler and less confused than mine.

I can look at this feeling of relief and realise that it may not be warranted, because in my head I know that playing rugby is no guarantee of a trouble-free development of identity. But in my heart it remains a powerful belief, based on my own experience of growing up.

It is mad, really, how quickly and unconsciously these hopes and fears and expectations for our children can be triggered. It is mad the different things that can trigger the associations.

I always knew, theoretically, that I had aspirations for my son but I always assumed that I would be more alert to them. It wasn't until I started discussing the drug testing with him that I began to realise what meaning rugby had for me about the transition to manhood.

The need to chemically enhance or speed up physical development unfortunately fits a sport which, more than others, demands boys and men to be bigger, stronger and more forceful, as well as more canny and more skillful than their opposition. Therefore it's good that the IRFU and the Sports Council recognise that schoolboy rugby is potentially high risk for doping and that they are doing something about it.

Perhaps there is a real machismo that is associated with playing rugby. If there is then I want my son to experience that. It will be good for him to feel the hard edge of maleness that exists in fierce and physical competition.

I never felt it and like many fathers before me I want my son to have opportunities that I didn't have. I want him to learn from other men who think differently to me, who have different strengths and different opinions.

I can give him many skills in understanding people and being connected to his and their emotions. I can give him my experience of the world, but it is therefore limited to what I know.

So rugby, for me, adds a useful balance to what I can offer him to allow him to grow into the man that he will be.

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