Tag Archives: rugby

Why it’s good to fall flat on your face as a teacher

I was fortunate enough to be taught to play rugby by Tosh Askew, one of the great youth coaches of the English game. At the time he was reaching the end of his playing career with Liverpool St Helens, and later went on to coach a highly successful England U19 side, laying the foundations for a generation of internationals who became a leading force on the world stage. Long before that he was standing in the rain shouting at groups of disorganised and reluctant schoolchildren, one of whom was me.

A reconstruction of good tackle form from BBC Sport. In my mind this is how it happened, but I’m sure that reality was very different.

Tosh was a teacher who didn’t need to rely on discipline or coercion to get his charges in line, even while out in the mud on a cold winter afternoon*. His physical presence alone was terrifying enough. Throughout my later years playing amateur club rugby I could still hear his voice in the back of my mind booming “Run straight Eichhorn!” It’s there to this day, over 30 years later. That wasn’t why he was such a great teacher though.

One session sticks in my mind during which we were being drilled in attacking and defensive line play. I can only have been 12 or 13 years old and at that moment I was on the defending side. Tosh, in his attempts to impose some order on the attacking group, had picked up the ball and was directing their movements. So it was that I found myself, a scrawny and bookish young lad, facing the prospect of a large, muscular man heading in my general direction. I did what any self-respecting rugby player would do in such circumstances. I went for his knees.

Moments later, to my great surprise, I found myself on the ground clutching a pair of legs, with Tosh also in the dirt, having off-loaded the ball on the way down. Play immediately stopped as all the other boys paused to take in the scene. He turned and looked at me.

“What are you doing Eichhorn?”

“Tackling the ball carrier Sir”, I responded meekly.

“Very good. Play on!”

No more was said about it and the session resumed. To this day I have no idea whether he went down deliberately to salvage my pride, or tripped over me, or was just trying to make sure that I didn’t get hurt in the process. I had no business bringing down a man of his size and strength.

This incident provided me with an immediate, if poorly-deserved, confidence boost. In the eyes of my peers it gave me a certain cachet: I had taken down Tosh! It even featured on my school report later that term. Why am I still dwelling on this minor incident, three decades on? Only because I’ve learnt a different lesson from it, which is the value as a teacher of allowing yourself to take a very public fall in front of your students.

Sometimes as teachers a student will step up and tell us that we’re wrong. In such circumstances the instinct is often to push back. You might be adamant that you’re correct, or else feel that your authority in class depends on maintaining your superior status. I recommend trying something different: let them take you down. Clearly, deliberately, so that everyone can see it.

It doesn’t happen to me often, or indeed as often as I would like, but sometimes a student will correct me on the identification of a species, or provide a counter-example that conflicts with one of my points. In the early days of teaching I probably would have reacted defensively, reflecting my own insecurity. Later on I’d have thought about teachable moments, maybe inviting the rest of the class to respond and seeing if I could turn it into a discussion. The latter approach is great if it works, but can also end up being a means of pitting students against one other, and places your initially brave student in the firing line. They will all think twice about speaking up again.

What I’ve learnt from that tackle, or rather from its aftermath, is that sometimes as a teacher you should allow yourself to be taken down. Any loss to your authority will be more than offset by the gains for your student. They can walk away buoyed with the knowledge that they got one over you, if only this once, and that however terrifying it might seem in the moment, they can actually do whatever it is that you’re trying to teach them, whether it’s a physical tackle or demonstrating some critical thinking. Their confidence is worth far more than your pride.

* I should probably make it clear at this point that although he was known as Tosh to the students, we would never have dared call him that to his face. It was ‘Sir’ or Mr Askew. If I ran into him again today then I’d still feel wary about using his first name.


Keep your enemies close to save the planet


This year Toronto Wolfpack join rugby’s Super League. But at what cost to the climate? (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

I’m a rugby fan. In the past I played for several amateur teams as I moved between cities for work. In all honesty I was never a particularly good player, but being keen and available is usually enough to secure a place in the squad and a guaranteed game in the reserves. It’s been over ten years since I picked up a ball though. Rugby is definitely a game for the young*. These days I meet my craving for rugby vicariously through supporting my local rugby union club and the rugby league side from where I grew up.

Over the last 30 years or so the game has changed immensely, and mostly for the better. Rugby union turned professional in 1995 while rugby league had begun to do so a century earlier (this was the original reason for the split between the two codes). Overall this has meant an increased profile, a more enjoyable experience for the fans, better protection for players and most of all an improved quality of the game.

Another trend began in the last few years though, which is that the sports became international at club level. In 2006 the rugby union Super League ceased to be a UK-only affair with the arrival of French side Catalans Dragons. In the 2020 season it has been joined by Toronto Wolfpack from Canada. A league previously confined to a narrow corridor of northern England has suddenly become transatlantic. Meanwhile in Ireland my local rugby union side Munster now play in the elite PRO14 league. Originally the Celtic League and composed of sides from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, these days it takes in two clubs each from Italy and South Africa. In the southern hemisphere Super Rugby unites teams from Argentina to Japan. Hardly next-door neighbours.

Why should this matter? Surely it’s great to see some of the world’s best teams pitted against one another?

Watching the start of the rugby league season made me a little anxious. Toronto, being unable to play in Canada at this time of year (it’s still too cold), began their season with a heavy loss against Yorkshire side Castleford Tigers. Many of their fans were Canadians based in the UK and delighted to have a team from back home to support. But there was also a hard core of travelling fans. And what happens when UK sides start playing games in Canada: how many air miles will be racked up? Few fans can afford to do so, and certainly not often, but there was no reason to even consider it before now.

This internationalisation of sport at the club level is driving a new trend in long-haul leisure travel, whether it’s American Football games in London or South African rugby teams playing in Ireland. Entire teams, their support staff and a dedicated fan base are now making regular trips around the world for one-off fixtures.** These will inevitably involve more flights than would otherwise have occurred. At least if you’re playing teams in your own country you can usually take the train.

This has of course been going on with international-level sports for a long time, but there the frequency is much lower. Major tournaments only occur every few years and visiting national fans usually attend a couple of games, allowing for an economy of scale. Even in this arena there’s been an increase in travel; one of the reasons for the formation of multinational touring sides like the Lions was to spread the cost of long-distance trips among national associations. Now every country travels independently. Still, although the audiences for international fixtures are huge, most fans watch at home on the TV. Club fans usually don’t have that option.

In the face of a climate crisis all sectors of society have a part to play. Unnecessarily increasing travel emissions by creating trans-national sporting contests among teams with very local fan-bases strikes me as an unwelcome new direction. Commercialisation of the game has had many benefits but this is not one of them. Despite flygskam, growth of air travel has continued unabated, and international sporting fixtures are a contributing factor.

The most enjoyable, passionate and intense games are those between local rivals. Watching Munster face up to Leinster, or Warrington against St Helens**, is to me the pinnacle of each sport at club level. Best of all, we can watch them practically on our doorsteps. Keeping our sporting fixtures local is one small way in which we can reduce our impact on the planet. Sustainable rugby? Why not.



* Anyone who plays rugby past the age of 35 is either brilliant, crazy or no longer interested in the finer tactical points of the game.

** The chant of disgruntled fans suspecting the referee of bias will have to be “Did you bring him on the plane?”.

*** Especially when we win. Oh look, we did it again.