Lad culture in universities, initiation ceremonies and some sickening examples of enforced behaviour have contributed to a huge drop-off in participation in rugby union and caused significant concern to the RFU.
The Times has learnt of initiations including chilli powder being applied to sensitive areas, players having to fish dead rats out of buckets with their mouths and freshers having vomit thrown over them.
Initiation ceremonies are banned by universities but they still occur, often branded as “welcome drinks”. The union is aware of incidents that, in the words of Steve Grainger, the RFU rugby development director, “turn the stomach” and have discouraged some players from competing in university rugby.
It estimates that 10,000 recent school leavers have stopped playing rugby union since the end of last season. Although there will always be a drop in numbers when players reach 18 and leave school, the RFU is concerned that players who would like to continue playing do not, either because there is no opportunity to do so or because they are put off by the rugby culture at university.
Students have to be in with the right people if they want to play. Clubs become small empires
Freshers at the University of Manchester have had to participate in a twisted version of apple bobbing, using their mouth to pull a dead rat from a bucket of cider.
At Loughborough University, students have been challenged to drink four litres of cider. They were all then sick into a bucket and the last to finish had the vomit thrown on them. University of Bath freshers were blindfolded, ordered to put their hands out and then urinated on. The two universities declined to comment last night.
The Times has also learnt of instances at other universities of carrots being inserted into players, and of a so-called “human centipede”, which involves players in a line sticking their thumbs into the backsides of the team-mates in front of them.
“It’s not me or anyone being square. It’s got beyond that. We see the rugby club standing on chairs, throwing up into bins and being forced to drink vomit,” one student told The Times.
Another said: “There’s no way you can play university rugby without buying into the culture.”
In some cases it appears that players who are good enough to play for their university decide to play at a lower level to avoid initiations. They are not included in the RFU’s drop-out figures but they are affected nonetheless.
“My intramural team is actually a really good standard,” one student said. “A lot of players played school first team or county, but they want nothing to do with the university rugby club.”
Most initiations are well documented, with players asked to get drunk, get naked and stand on a bar stool singing a song. The nudity is rarely considered a big deal to rugby players given how much of their lives they spend in changing rooms and communal showers. There are some, though, that are far worse than others.
“I am absolutely shocked,” Grainger said. “Disappointed would be a better word. We pride ourselves on, and a big USP of the sport [is], the values. The sort of behaviour that goes on is in total contradiction to our core values, hence why we have to do whatever we can to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“We have to be careful we don’t sensationalise it and give people the impression it happens whenever you go near any rugby team. For every story you hear about an initiation, you can talk to 100 players who have never been near one or didn’t know they existed.
“But when we do hear about it, you can’t help your stomach turning and thinking, ‘That is another challenge we have to overcome,’ because it changes peoples’ perception of the game.”
The RFU works closely with the Students Rugby Football Union and British Universities & College Sport (Bucs), which has its own policy on initiations and anti-social behaviour.
It reads: “Bucs is acutely aware that student life and student sport often involves alcohol consumption, but it condemns any behaviour that damages students’ health and wellbeing or adversely affects the student sporting experience.”
Grainger said that the RFU’s approach to inappropriate conduct by rugby clubs was two-pronged: discipline and education. On initiations, he said: “We take a pretty hard line when it is brought to our attention.”
He said that the RFU had been working to educate leading student players to “get them on board as influencers”, to “try and bring them with us to make sure the next generation get a good experience”.
Educating those students is seen as a critical step because in many cases it is they who run the university club. Some institutions employ coaches but they tend to be far fewer than many students are used to at their schools and often work only with the first team.
It therefore becomes a requirement for students to be in with the right people if they want to play. With selection not necessarily on merit, rugby clubs can become small empires run by small groups of students.
“Even in higher education where you might have a coach, the culture tends to be heavily student run — certainly beyond the first XV,” Grainger said.
In 2014, the London School of Economics disbanded its rugby club after the publication of a leaflet described as “misogynistic, sexist and homophobic”. An investigation uncovered a history of offensive conduct.
“We were supportive of that [ban] because some action needed to be taken,” Grainger said. “But if you don’t get back in and do the re-education work with the players you have lost rugby for ever from there, which is something you don’t want to see.”
Rugby union is not alone in having to deal with the initiation issue. Hockey is another sport synonymous with the practice, which is known in the United States as “hazing”. There has been at least one hazing-related death a year on a university campus in the United States since 1961, according to professor Hank Nuwer at Franklin College of Indiana.
There have been tragedies in the UK too. In 2008, Gavin Britton died of alcohol poisoning after a golf club initiation at the University of Exeter. In 2016, Ed Farmer died after drinking “excessive amounts of alcohol” at an Agriculture Society event at Newcastle University.
Although the universities may ban initiations, policing them is a problem. At the University of Bath, sports clubs wishing to welcome first-year students into their clubs must submit a breakdown of their planned activities to ensure that they stay within university policy.
Will Galloway, the Bath Students’ Union sports officer, said: “The Student Rugby Club have not held an official welcome social for first-year students for six-plus years, with the view and aim of changing the culture within. Any form of initiation is not permitted; the Students’ Union will take the necessary action.”
“This is not just an issue facing rugby,” Grainger said. “That is where the relationship with bodies like Bucs is really important to us.
“We are not trying to defend it at all and we are not trying to step away from it because if rugby is in there we want to do something about it and make sure we are at the table.
“It does often get frustrating. Like concussion. Rugby gets pulled out because we are taking the most action. It is frustrating when you get on the front foot to counter it and then you are drawing attention to the problem.”
Initiations are one of the factors the RFU must address if they are to keep more school-leavers actively engaged in rugby. “It is an area that is front and central to us,” Grainger said. “There are many more people going away to university and there is a gap we need to fill.
“University is an opportunity to try some different sports that maybe they didn’t get at school. Some of them will find other attractions that are there at the freshers’ fair. They have spent the last few years at school being first XV and don’t get in the fifth XV at university and so take the easy way out.”
RFU TO LAUNCH X-RUGBY
- A new form of rugby is to be launched in England next year, called X-Rugby (Owen Slot writes). The new game is part of the RFU’s strategic plan, published yesterday, which is for rugby to be “England’s strongest sport”.
X-Rugby is a hybrid version of sevens. It would be played crossways across a pitch, with seven players-a-side, less contact and no kicking above head height.
The laws are to be signed off by World Rugby next month. The game is intended for all ages but the RFU intends to start rolling it out into universities next term.
The university students are being targeted first because of the recognised drop-off the playing numbers when students start tertiary education. X-Rugby is intended as easier to play and to organise.
Steve Grainger, head of development at the RFU, believes that X-Rugby can also drag in a new playing population. “We are going to deliberately go after other team sport players, who haven’t played before but want some contact.”
The contact will be limited by the lowering of the height of the tackle. In X-Rugby, the legal height of the tackle will be under the armpits.
Grainger said: “Team sport, as a whole, is in decline. We want to buck that trend. We want to make sure that rugby is very genuinely the sport of choice in communities.”