Rugby Coaching Blog | Professional Rugby Advice & Coaching

Why rugby players fight by David Clarke


It is said that rugby has a wonderful reputation for fair play and good humour. And yet there are still plenty of on field fights, with spectacular scraps coming in some of the biggest games.


Apart from the fact it is detrimental to the game, fighting is not good for the team. Aggressive players do make a difference to a side, but they can also be a liability. I ran a very physical ruck and tackle session on Friday night and it was clear who the players wanted to avoid. However the same player could square up to an opponent and find himself giving away a penalty, being sent to the sin bin or worse still, being sent off.


Players fight for the following reasons:

1. Someone else hits them and they retaliate.

2. They are tired and frustrated and lash out.

3. They want to prove a point.

4. They feel a sense of injustice has occurred.


It is an environmental consequence as much as an individual action. Some teams will fight, others play hard. If it is accepted that there will be a fight in the first few minutes to sort who’s who, then it will happen.


Where do coaches stand on this? Of course, from a moral point of view, fighting is pretty low down. It is the cowards’ way of resolving issues. Then again if you ask a coach publically on the matter, the answer is likely to be different to the private response.


The question is a personal one:  do you accept fighting will occur, ignore it or stand up to it? The question goes deeper perhaps. When is a fight “handbags”, with a short flurry of slaps and pushes, or on full on attempt to harm the players involved?


Of course your response is…well, what you do you really think?



9 Comments so far
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This raises an fundamental to the principles by which rugby is played. It is a combatitive sport played according to a comprehensive and sophisticated set of rules that govern how the combat is conducted, just as any combative sport, such as judo, boxing wrestling etc.

If coaches by any means condone applying force to opponents outside the laws of the game for whatever reason, then they are cynics, they are cheating and worse, they are promoting disresepect of the game, opponents and the fundamental principles of the sport.

By foul means or fair is the route of the inferior side and it is an aspect of the modern game that drags rugby into the gutter with other sports that have wallowed there for years – soccer in particular.

If coaches condone violence outside the rules they are responsible for placing rugby into the company of these less honourable sports.

I see parents of young children who are attracted to rugby and consider it a sport for their children on account of the honourable codes under which it is conducted. To destroy that with cynicism is to increase the threat to the future reputation of the sport.

I always tell my players, turn it into rugby, thuggery is no substitute for good play.

Unfortunately I believe a many coaches and some of the most senior ones are guilty of allowing thugs to play in their teams.

Comment by Gary Shanahan

I agree with Mr. Shanahan fully. As a former American High School rugby coach, we worked hard to instill good, solid and agressive, yet fair play.

We encountered teams we knew had players more than willing to punch, fight and try to physically intimidate. From our efforts, we were able to teach that strict, fair yet agressive play with win the day each time.

Our players learned to advantage themselves from the oppositions’ excess agression. The kids would enjoy this a great deal, as they learned supporting themselves and their mates this way lead to great success. We won our state title undefeated while at the same time, also winning the state team sportsmanship award.

Comment by Mike Fossenier

The sentiments above are where we should all be aiming for, however it is amazing how many times we meet teams who have a real problem and at these clubs the standards have to be set by the committee and the coaches to eradicate violent conduct from the game. Clubs should receive punishment if disciplinary boards see regular appearances from players of that club. We get our players to view this not only from a moral point of view but from the view that their being penalised, carded or sent off effects the result of the game and their selection depends on not giving away penalties. However try not retaliating if someone punches you off of the ball or stamps on your head, its not as easy as you think. And from the moralistic point of view its a fact that the referee usually gets the retaliator, not the perpatrator AND retaliation gets a more severe ruling from the disciplinary; how can this be fair?

Comment by David Trueman

My eldest son plays rugby and enjoys it immensley. As a father and a rugby player it makes me tremendously proud. However what annoys and sadens me is the parents who condon thugery and openly encourage it from the sidelines. How do we encourage childen to participate in rugby when they witness and are victims of this sort of thing. I wish that parents would encourage and support their children along with the coaches of the teams they play for to play hard and aggresive, but certainly not fight and verbally abuse.

Comment by Jonathan Bunyan

Players, youngsters in particular, have to realise that dirty, underhand, thuggish play does not equal “hard” play. Rugby gives players the means to be as hard as they want to be without resorting to nastiness. My son, an outstanding soccer player came home one night when he was 13, and said “Dad, I’m giving up football – it’s so cheap. In rugby, someone tackles me really hard, I accept it, and try to hit him equally hard. Today, three times I dribbled past defenders, and they took my legs away from behind. No more.” His ankles were a mess. If there is a problem, the solution is with coaches and referees – we have to educate the youngsters AND THE PARENTS.

Comment by Steve Johnson

it was clear who the players wanted to avoid. However the same player could square up to an opponent and find himself giving away a penalty, being sent to the sin bin or worse still, being sent off.
Mr. Cottrell’s remarks reminded me of a few players that I have seen in sports. If the best player is also hot tempered and gets into scraps, how many coaches are going to set him down when he is hurting the team? How many parents are going to laugh about it when they are standing around with the kids? I have seen this happen a number of times and it gives tacit approval for this kind of behavior. I think that young players must be shown the boundaries and know that they will be enforced. Just my two cents.

Comment by Greg Horton

new to coaching but having played the game from 1958 till 1986 i feel rugby was and still is a game of the old clans. on the field we as a team are closer than family and the opposition are the enemy,to be beaten at all costs. a good old’hows your mother’ is aceppted by queensbury rules,and a beer after the game made that blue eye all that more is the coach’s responsiblity to maintain these traditions and standards of the game not emphasis the punching but the comeradeship of the duel. if we loose this we loosethe game of RUGBY.

Comment by peter turner

A word that was used often in this blog is “thug”. I call it “thugby” and coach against it.
In college, we boycotted a team and refused to play them for one year. They had to drive out of the state to find a game all because their coach and players were trying to fight everyone and other teams joined us in the boycott. Their team survived but their leadership changed because no teams would play them.
I am a firm believer in the coach having to take a stand against it. At a parents meeting, an old military rugby player whose daughter wanted to play sat quietly, arms folded across his chest, listening to me talk about the comradarie and our code of conduct that I require my players to sign. At the conclusion of my presentation, I asked if anyone had any questions and of course, he raised his hand.
“When are you going to tell these people the truth about rugby?” he asked.
I asked him to clarify.
“When are you going to tell them about the punching, eye gouging, broken bones and all the real parts of the game.”
My remark to him was quite simple. “If that is how your daughter is going to play, she won’t be playing for me.”
In all age grades, discipline is a key factor in showing all those hesitant about allowing it into schools in the US that rugby, when played in the true spirit of the game, is a pleasure to watch and a thrill to play.
We have to change one mind at a time over here on what rugby is really all about! And it isn’t about thugby!

Comment by Tracey Davies

This year has been my first experience with Rugby football. Throughout my first year I have grown to love the sport and respect its traditions and sportsmanship. As a former football player I never experienced true sportsmanship like I’ve seen on and off the rugby field. Rugby is truly a sport that leaves it all on the pitch. As a high school coach I could not think of any better sport to teach to young men. Rugby is a way of life and a life that we should all want to instill in our kids.
That being said I saw the worst display of rugby today at the high school single school state championship. The game held in Gilbert, Gilbert vs. Greenville, was a much anticipated game. Having played both teams during the year and facing Greenville in the play offs the day before I knew this would be a battle to see. Little did I know I would see the lack of sportsmanship, cheap shots, and horrible attitudes that I did see. Throughout the game I helped take pictures for the National Guard and had a close up view of Greenville players throwing punches in the rucks and throughout the game. As the match continued the intensity increased and resulted in a full on fist throwing fight on the field during play. Unfortunately the referee during the match was on the other side of the pitch and did not see most of the fight. After Greenville lost the match half of their team would not shake hands with the Gilbert team. Not long after that the Greenville team began shouting obscenities towards the Gilbert player while they were receiving their trophies. When four of the Gilbert fans told them to go home, the Greenville player began to rush the fans. At this point I had to jump a fence and stand between about 10 Greenville player and 4 Gilbert fans (two guys and two girls). The fans were trying to back a way but the Greenville players continued to press forward. After the situation was controlled and the player were directed to leave they sat at the exit to the field and through water bottles at the cars as they drove by.
It is my understanding that the high school rugby league and the National Guard have created this program to better our teenagers and introduce them to the rugby way of life. Is the attitudes and actions seen at this game we want our players to mimic? I would say not. The reason for this letter is to inform you of the actions that occurred on the field and ask you what can be done about this. It is my understanding this same team has fought after another game previously in the season, and has tried to provoke fights in others. A couple years ago there was a small game at “Death Valley” in Clemson, South Carolina held between Carolina and Clemson football. At the end of the game there was a fight and both universities were not allowed to go to their bowl games that year. The reasoning was because neither school wanted that particular team to represent their university and football program. With that in mind is Greenville the team we as a rugby community want to represent us in the national tournament. Are their actions going to be tolerated by the high school league? If so then we may as well stop trying to get rugby going as a high school sport, because no high school league will ever accept a sport that condones such actions.

Comment by Bruce Hill

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