Last week there was a bit of a debate around sports scholarships, particularly rugby, in independent schools.
Essentially the debate was over whether there were too many and whether the number of them was spoiling schools rugby – essentially were they creating a tiered school rugby system between the haves and the have nots.
It was not the most eloquently put argument, nor necessarily made to the right people, but at its core was a question worth asking. Are the number of imports in certain schools spoiling the school game?
There is no point in singling out schools, that really is not the point, it is simply enough to say that it is clear that schools that import more heavily than others finish their seasons, on average, with a much better win/loss ratio than those that do not.
It is also important to point out that to varying degrees, it has always been that way.
There are four basic elements to the debate – the individual schools, the individual players themselves, the health of the schools rugby circuit, and the impact on the wider game.
Of those three elements, three are improved by importing. Schools, through the associated results bump, perform better on the pitch, gain positive marketing reach, and are able to demonstrate that they offer scholarships and bursaries that help children gain access and reward that they might not otherwise have had.
For the individual players, some are given access to a standard of education that they might not otherwise have had (though of course this is not true in all cases), and certainly they are all exposed to a standard of rugby and coaching that they were not in before. Their game develops, so too their off field opportunities, if an independent school is carrying out its duties properly. So for the player, it is often a no-brainer.
The player that is often cited on missing out is the player that loses their place to an imported player. This is probably the most hotly debated topic, and certainly for those individuals it is really tough from a pride point of view. Again though it is not exactly unfair, schools do not target players in positions where they feel they have top quality, and the player that does lose that spot is exposed to better players and higher quality training than before, thus improving them. It is a really tough area of the debate, but in theory everyone should come out of it better. That is not to negate how tough it is though, it can be truly devastating.
Looking at the wider game, with players being exposed to better play, better coaching, and potentially better opposition, that is going to create better players, so the impact further up the chain for the wider game can only be good too.
Of those three elements, it is maybe the schools themselves that might be most vulnerable to continuing to fall on the positive side of the debate. For if disapproval of an importing policy starts to become widespread, perhaps that marketing boost may start to become a marketing negative as that potential disapproval spreads.
The element where the real debate is though, is on the health of the school circuit. If a side is packed full of imports and routinely beating their opposition heavily, then there comes a point where others, and maybe that school themselves, may start to question what the point is. Nobody wants to see those sorts of huge scorelines.
It is there that the danger lies, for if opposition start deciding that they do not want to face a side full of imports that routinely thumps teams, then the competition dries up, the players no longer benefit, the schools marketing positives dry up, and the impact on the games becomes a negative one.
It is in that area that the danger lies.
So what to do? The most important people when it comes to imports, scholarships, and bursaries, are the children, the players. That is all anyone should be concerned about. Do they benefit? Absolutely.
So those who say abolish the practice say so from the wrong place. The positives of importing players far outweigh the negatives.
Limits could be put on the number of imports each school can take in? But again, the people being punished there are the children, the very people everyone is trying to support.
One suggestion we have heard makes for unlikely reading but potentially an exciting solution. A draft system, of sorts.
A draft in the sense that importing is regionalized. The RFU already breaks the school system into North, Midlands, London & South East, and South West, each school can be bracketed into one of those four regions, or potentially into even smaller mini-regions.
You then say that schools can only import from their own regions, thus spreading the number of schools that those top imported players end up at.
If there are then players that need/should/could have been imported somewhere but have not been, they are then eligible to be imported outside of their school region – so as to ensure that no school player does not receive the best possible opportunities.
Is it a perfect solution? No. Could it work? Possibly.
The real question though is, is it necessary? And on that I fall on the side of no. Yes, schools importing a huge number of players can be frustrating and it does create some mismatches that seem a bit unfair. However, on the other hand, certainly among independent schools, everyone could import at that level if they so choose. Sport is uniquely placed because it is so popular, but schools import just as much in music for instance, but you very rarely hear complaints that one school has just ‘bought their way’ to a better orchestra, why is sport held to a different standard by onlookers?
The reality is that the debate over importing has gone on for a hundred years and will do for a hundred more. But if you look over that time frame different schools have dipped in and out of dominance. In reality it is always about a particular school’s policy at a particular point in time.
Is a school right to feel a bit peeved when a local rival starts to import and routinely beat them? Sure, and it should motivate them even more every time they face them. But is it unfair? Of course not, and if the mismatch continues eventually the fixture may be lost and both will find a more competitive one, which would be sad, but ultimately all around both sides gain competition and produce better players and people for it.
It is perfectly reasonable for anyone to seriously dislike importing, to really support it, or to be fairly ambivalent about it. Until an idea is found that makes sure that the most important people, the players, remain getting the best possible opportunities though, can anyone really ask for it to end?
It is probably the biggest debate in school rugby. At various times I have drifted all along that line of disliking it to ambivalence to supporting it and back again.
It’s a debate worth having, but worth having sensibly. So for goodness sake, let’s keep it off Twitter!