Juliet Sullivan - published in "The Province" February 26.2013
“Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen”. It’s been said so many times that it’s almost a cliché. But no-one really knows from where, or whom, this phrase originated, although some credit Sir Winston Churchill; others Oscar Wilde. The fact is, despite much research, some of it my own, it seems the quote cannot be correctly attributed to anyone. My son did shout it out in the middle of a game once (with an added expletive), after witnessing an unprovoked attack on his team-mate, but I don’t think he can claim the words as being his own. Mothers watching their sons and daughters take to the field, unprotected, to face an oncoming full-on running tackle from an opposing player, will take little comfort from the fact that rugby is “played by gentlemen”. But as one of those mothers, after watching countless games over the past 20 years – including many professional games in England and Scotland – I have never witnessed an injury in rugby as bad as some I have seen in other sports.
I still cover my eyes sometimes, if my precious (six feet tall, 200 pound) son happens to be at the bottom of a ruck, or a scrum, and I am always grateful when the full-time whistle blows and there are no injuries – on either side. Please don’t ask me to explain what a ruck, or a scrum, is. I may have watched countless games, but I still struggle to understand the game fully. I still find rugby, whilst an exciting spectator sport, to be complex and multifaceted, and the rules are not always clear to me. It’s our instinct as women to be protective, and our instinct as parents to be scared if we perceive our kids to be in danger. The fact is, rugby is no more dangerous than other sports, though it is almost impossible to back this up with statistical evidence, as the numbers of players involved in each sport varies considerably, and there is very little research being done to record injury statistics.
Now throw in the fact that I now live in Canada, where rugby is still largely misunderstood, and where people look at me like I am an abusive parent when I tell them my son plays the game – and here we have a problem. That problem is ignorance, and the key is education. We need to educate people about the benefits of kids getting involved in the sport; we need to show that it is a great game and that it is not dangerous, as it is perceived to be. The perception has shifted slightly in the past few years, due in some part to the attention received by the Canadian national team in the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. All nations need a sports celebrity, and this came for Canada in the unlikely form of Adam Kleeburger, whose talent – and overgrown beard – caused a surge of publicity for himself and the sport.
Kleeburger says, “Typically in Canada people perceive rugby players as being these goons who go out on the field, smash each other around, get bloodied and bruised and then go and drink beer afterwards. I think it comes down to exposure and getting people to see there’s more to it than that.” We all know that rugby is actually one of the only games that promotes respect on the field; something that inevitably translates into life off the field; and something we all want our kids to be is respectful. Kleeburger says, “The biggest thing, I think, rugby can give a young player is the idea of respect. I think rugby is the only sport where if you are going to address the ref, (it is usually only your captain who can do so), you address them as ‘sir’. If you have an issue, you have to address it in a proper way, in a manner that will help get your point across without being insulting.” That’s great, but what about the fact that the idea of the game is to run at each other full speed, and bring each other to the ground in a battle of brawn, strength and skill? Kleeburger says, “Players realise you’re not wearing helmets and pads, and you have to learn to do things in a proper manner, not only so you don’t hurt the other player but so you don’t hurt yourself.” So, will there come a time when rugby players have to wear protective gear? “I hope not, “ says Kleeburger. “Rugby is a contact sport, and with contact sport comes injuries – I am a prime example of that.” (He is currently recovering from a back and shoulder injury). “You have to understand going into the sport that it does have that risk. But you can get injured playing football, soccer or hockey. There have been a lot of changes in hockey; players used to not wear helmets, and they didn’t have the same injuries they do now; they didn’t have sticks to the face because there was that element of respect. Players realised that they should keep their sticks down. Whereas in today’s game, you see sticks all over the place, you see injuries to the head; it’s just a case of understand and respecting.”
Kleeburger’s rugby career started in White Rock when he was 14. He had been involved in ice hockey up until that time, but was getting sick of the politics in the game. He got a taste of rugby in Grade 8 after going on a rugby tour to Argentina. I am interested to know how Adam’s parents coped with his transition from hockey to rugby. “My parents were like a lot of parents – they didn’t understand the game very well. They had been around for hockey and they support me in whatever I do, but it’s a little more difficult when they don’t understand certain things. My mom would come to my games and cringe every time I went into a tackle. But unless you’ve grown up with it, it’s hard to understand that it’s not the same kind of contact as, say, football. It’s much more controlled, and there is more respect, and you are actually trying to make a proper tackle, whereas in football guys can just jump out of line and just charge at you and grab your legs. You can’t do that in rugby because you are responsible for the tackle, and if you miss a tackle, that puts your entire team under pressure.”
Something I love about rugby is that it seems to be all-inclusive; there are players of all sizes and abilities. Kleeburger, who is studying kinesiology at The University of Victoria in British Columbia and is coaching the rugby program there, says “Rugby is the one program in the school where nobody gets cut. We have a lot of guys who are there because they want to be a part of the team, and want to be a part of the rugby atmosphere; they don’t have maybe the same skills as some of the guys playing at a higher level, but they are still involved and they still feel like part of the group.”
And there is something else. Rugby is not just about rugby. It’s about socializing, community, acceptance, team spirit, camaraderie – and creating life-long memories. As a mother, I like that. I want all of that for my kids. And as a parent, I get to experience that myself too; my own social life has centred around rugby for over 25 years. I guess that makes me a rugby groupie, but that’s OK.
Kleeburger says, “Rugby is the sort of sport that people get so much out of it that they really want to give back. We have a lot of parents and ex-players who still want to be involved in it because they have had such a good, positive experience.” Rugby is a culture, one that keeps people involved, sometimes all through their lives. I personally know of one player who played well into his 80’s.
Kleeburger, who is not recognised so much now that his famous beard has been shaved (“and I’m fine with that”), says that the sport helped him build confidence. “I would say I am fairly shy, so I think rugby has brought out an ability to be in social situations. I feel more comfortable being around a wide range of people. I think rugby generates a more well-rounded person.”
And as a mother of a 15-year-old giant who is a budding gentleman, I would have to agree.