For 6 years now Ethan has played rugby for our local club. We have lived, breathed and loved rugby each winter for each of those years and look forward to doing it all over again with Nixon – god help us!
E missed his first game ever as we prepared for my Dad’s funeral the next day. Every freezing, wet Saturday since, I have sadly remembered that Dad never got to see how wonderfully perfect Ethan is for the game, or just how perfect the game is for him.
The road to J1 has not been all tackles and tries however. You’re probably aware by now that Dave and I knock out some spectacularly sized kids. Epic, bouncing boys full of vim and vigour, boys literally BORN to get in the scrum and celebrate their imminent cauliflower ears with all the forwards that have gone before them.
Ethan is now the youngest member of his J1 team. For those uninitiated in the terminology of Junior Club rugger, J1 is the last grade kids play in before they head off to play rugby at high school. J1 is the catch-all, business end of one’s Junior Rugby Career. Some kids will never play J1, it’s a tough grade full of big boys that know what they’re doing and want to put their growing testosterone reservoirs to the test each week.
Every season, for 6 years he has been the youngest member of his team. Every year for 6 years he has had to move up a grade, never to spend more than one season honing his skills before he had to move up to play with the older, potentially bigger boys.
Why? Ethan IS one of the bigger boys. Not so much so that you would snigger (unless you’re his age and bad mannered as many of his school peers and team-mates have been or obviously a judgemental parent in Manurewa!), but, heavy enough that the annual pre-season weigh-ins have been fraught with tears and angst, worry and self-doubt and words of self-deprecation that I never imagined I would hear from my brilliant, smart, socially LOVED little boy. Those fucking scales and the heavy burden of conformity they represent are the one dark spot on a sport our family loves so much.
Get off your soapbox for a second, I can see you all getting riled up. I’m not naive. There are very reasonable and sensical safety reasons for a grading system in a contact sport to be based upon a combination of weight and age. That is not what I’m taking issue with……..entirely. What I am saying, is that every participant of said contact sport (whether as player or sideline expert aka Mum/Dad), should be aware of the social and mental implications of grading CHILDREN based upon their WEIGHT.
Stop for a second and imagine if a predominantly female sport was graded in such a way. Would society even allow it?
I doubt it.
But my son, from the age of 5, has had to bravely get on a scale twice a season, in front of strangers AND his peers and be judged on his body before he is able to play the sport he loves. His strong, powerful, absolutely magnificent body that’s also 3 kilos too heavy to be allowed to play rugby for his intermediate school. WTF.
Can you imagine what that feels like? You are brand new at a school 5 times the size of the rural primary school you attended. You figure out where and when the rugby weigh-ins are, steel yourself to get there on time (the Year 7 equivalent of navigating across Auckland at rush hour without a map when you’re from Finland), only to get on the scales and be told ‘too heavy’.
End of story.
I’m on the committee at our local rugby club. During registration, every child must be weighed in. Earlier this year I cried with a boy of 10 when he was informed that to play in the grade best suited to his age and ability, he would be ‘Red Socks’. Aside from his size, he had a new identifying factor that would further alienate him from the rest of his insensitive peers – he would be wearing red socks every game to identify that he was an ‘overweight’ player, his official title “Special”.
No shit. He’d probably known that most of his life. As a veteran team manager, I’ve been there each season with boys and their families as weigh-in approaches. Some boys diet (CHILDREN DIETING, think about that p l e a s e?), some put their heads in the sand and say “well, it is what it is” and they bravely swallow the red socks and get on with it. But for all it hurts. I’m fighting tears as I type this because you just can’t imagine what it’s like to see your beloved son get on a scale with fear in his eyes, when he is actually the very best little boy he can be. When he is just SO right for the position he plays in his team that you, your coach and any damn laymen that knows anything about rugby would agree.
Our national sport, that one that heaps adulation upon the big, the strong, the downright giant elite players, is totally fine with telling an 11 year old that he is 3 kilos to heavy to participate in his chosen sport at school. What kind of kids do you want in the front row? If it’s not Ethan and others like him than I think we’ve all been barking up the wrong tree for a while now and should move on to greco-wrestling or something with a little less mud and laundry.
Junior rugby is a sport that, much like education in new Zealand, is skewed to the lowest common denominator – in this instance, it’s weight. When I woke up this morning to see my Facebook feed awash with the viral post of Rochelle Mara, a mother from Manurewa eloquently sticking it to some asshat parents on the sideline of her son’s rugby game, the pain of every boy who didn’t fit the ‘mould’ in my teams over the past 6 years came rushing back.
Boys that are big, bigger than your son, bigger than your husband even! These are EXACTLY the boys who should be playing rugby. These are the boys whom we should be supporting and cheering on, the boys who should feel like they’ve found a home within their club, within their team and on that field. Rugby should be welcoming these children and saying ‘you have a place here’, you belong and we want you. Whether you’re 3kg’s too heavy or not.
The system is what it is, and playing tackle can be dangerous if there is a huge weight disparity. I’m not arguing that point as I don’t have an alternative solution to ensure everyone can enjoy rugby safely, but there is no excuse for being an asshole! Boys bodies’ deserve as much respect as their female peers.
Eljae and Rochelle you two are rockstars, I don’t know what else to say but that I get it. There are many of us that get it. You will kick this season’s ass and be playing like a man possessed by the end of the season I’m sure. And if you don’t? Then massive ups for having the balls to get on that scale and get on the field.
Have some fucking manners people and remember to be human once in a while mmmmkay?