All Black Jerome Kaino’s Clayesmore masterclass tackles rugby’s rough edge

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Award-winning writer Sam Peters looks for a game-changing playbook with Jerome Kaino’s Dorset evasion clinic providing a beacon for the future

Former New Zealand star Jerome Kaino, the holder of two World Cup winner’s medals and no fewer than 83 All Black caps, teaching the art of evasion at Clayesmore School in January
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

The headlines surrounding rugby union’s safety record have been pretty dreadful for the past decade or more.
I should know – I’ve been responsible for many of them.
Having witnessed the sport morph from a physically demanding amateur game into an extreme version of its former self, following the onset of professionalism in 1995, I spent more than 15 years as a national newspaper reporter, including four as rugby correspondent at the Mail on Sunday and two more at the Sunday Times, warning anyone who would listen that rugby’s risk profile was becoming intolerable. But for much of that time, it felt as if I was screaming in an empty room.
In August last year, still convinced there was a problem, I published a book: Concussed; Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth, which recounts the many battles I’d fought within the sport to raise the alarm about concussion and other injuries, and my hope that rugby could one day revert back to an evasion-based sport enjoyed by players of all shapes and sizes. In November, it was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

Players and staff from Bath and Stade Toulousain academies provided the opportunity of professional coaching for students from Clayesmore, Monkton Coombe and King Edward’s School Bath – images: Courtenay Hitchcock

It starts in Dorset
A legal case involving more than 300 former professional players, alleging the sport’s governing bodies were negligent in their handling of concussion following the onset of professionalism, hardly bodes well. Some fear if the sport doesn’t act decisively to reduce injury risk, rugby as we know it may not even exist in two decades time.
While some have sought to dismiss and denigrate those (me included) involved in the legal case, others believe it could be the catalyst for much-needed change which helps de-power the sport, reduce collisions and educate players to prize skill and evasion over brute power and force.
Anecdotally, parents are increasingly concerned about concussion rates, which have spiked in the past 20 years as professionalism has encouraged players to become bigger, faster and stronger. Inevitably, levels of participation in schools is being hit as a result.
Unquestionably, change is already beginning. In January, something quite remarkable happened here in Dorset, at Clayesmore school.
Former New Zealand star Jerome Kaino, the holder of two World Cup winner’s medals and no fewer than 83 All Black caps, schooled dozens of young players from around the west country in the lost art of evasion – how to explore space and in doing so reduce collisions on the field.
Players and staff from Bath and Stade Toulousain academies joined a training session which, while held on a biting-cold January morning, could not fail to warm the soul of anyone who cares about rugby’s long-term future.

images: Courtenay Hitchcock

A very different style
Watched by a collection of interested parties, including Clayesmore’s rugby-loving head teacher Jo Thomson, head of games Dan Conway, and head of rugby Richard Dixon, the players hung on every word the 40-year-old Kaino uttered and followed every direction given.
‘We (Stade Toulousain) love to keep the ball alive and the more time we can do that, without going into rucks or contact, that can be beneficial,’ Kaino said.
Dixon added: ‘You see a lot of rugby which is not about space, it’s about collisions. We’re more interested in teaching our boys there is another way to do this. Use your brain … create space … use space.’
No doubt sensing the opportunity to impress, boys from Clayesmore, Monkton Combe and St Edwards Bath were willing participants in a session demonstrating a very different style from the simplistic collision-based game many modern coaches are fixated by – but eschewed by legendary Toulouse and France coach Pierre Villepreux.

Clayesmore’s teacher of mathematics and sports coach Richard Dixon has known and worked with Sam Lacombe, Head of Stade Toulouse Academy for the last 12 years, having been introduced by Pierre Villepreux. Sam is the president of ‘Le Plaisir Du Mouvement’ the internationally-renowned rugby camp which teaches players and coaches on the coaching philosophy of Pierre Villepreux -images: Courtenay Hitchcock

Improving tackle techniques in order to reduce concussion was also a focus.
‘I am a huge believer in the importance of rugby and the values it instils in young people,’ Thomson told me. ‘But the data you show in your book is hard to argue with. Rather than bury our heads in the sand, we want to look for solutions to parental concerns about the risks of playing rugby. We want to safeguard the future of this brilliant game.’
With other schools around the country also looking to address safety concerns, it feels as if change will be driven not by reluctant and conflicted governing bodies, but by forward-thinking educational establishments such as Clayesmore, willing to tackle the toughest conversations and institute change accordingly.
And if they do, perhaps those headlines will begin to change for the better.
I, for one, dearly hope so.

Jerome Kaino demonstrating how to use speed, footwork and body moment to avoid big clashes -images: Courtenay Hitchcock

Concussed: Sport’s Uncomfortable Truth by Sam Peters SHORTLISTED for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award 2023

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