ACCORDING to 70 doctors and health experts, rugby is “a high impact, collision sport” and therefore tackling should be banned in school rugby, in order to prevent injuries to the children who play. This has undoubtedly led to plenty of opinions being voiced. Injury is an issue in rugby that must be taken seriously, but that is true for all sports. We must remember that the benefits rugby brings far outweigh the potential to be injured. Taking tackling out of rugby changes the whole dynamic of the game, and should not be done.
I was fortunate enough to attend a school where rugby was engrained in its culture, and was lucky enough to play throughout my teenage years. During this time, I did see injuries. However, the majority of these were usually pulled muscles, sprained ankles and other common injuries that could have resulted from any form of exercise. There were some slightly more serious injuries, yet these were far more uncommon, for example, I only saw one broken leg in the whole time I played. The most serious injury I saw was my team mate who tore some muscle off his hip bone, yet this occurred whilst kicking a conversion! Therefore, the link between tackling and injuries, in my experience, is not as concrete as the experts are pointing out.
However, I will not try to claim a better understanding of injuries than the health experts, and in a contact sport like rugby there are inevitably dangers. This is where the right education must happen in the sport, and from my experience it certainly did. From under 12s onwards, tackling technique was consistently a focus, which the emphasis on aiming for the core area of the opposing player when performing a tackle, wrapping the arms around the player, and bringing him to the ground. These were practiced slowly and statically, before steadily increasing the pace, in order to create a game like scenario. Education and training such as this is vital in preventing injuries, as a good tackling technique is proven to be both safe for the player tackling, and the player being tackled. The IRB are taking the issue of concussion very seriously, as seen in the professional game, and if this is a main concern for the health experts, then the only way to tackle this is to properly teach the right techniques for the game. This will not only keep young players safe, but also provide a solid foundation on which to improve their games going forward in the sport.
Aside from the technicalities of tackling, lots of young people truly thrived upon it in my experience. As the cliché goes, rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes, and this is especially true at school level. If there is a young player who is naturally large in size, who is physically suited to rugby and who enjoys it, why should they be told that they’re not allowed to tackle? I know of players who got into high level teams, through predominately their physicality and tackling. Inevitably, boys in their teenage years develop at different rates, and you can create dangerous size differences. Here, English schools could learn from New Zealand, where players play in teams selected by weight; not by age grade. The main danger from tackling arises from weight and size differences, not the principle of tackling itself, which can be solved.
The referees, from my memory, were particularly good at maintaining safety during the game. When a player signalled that he was injured, play would stop, and the coaches would assess the player, to determine whether he was fit to carry on. The scrums were also well managed, with limits on how far a scrum could drive, if there was an inferior contest, again preventing the risk of injury.
Rugby is never going to be injury or risk free, but then again, neither are other sports. Should people present the idea of banning swimming due to the possibility of drowning? Or banning football due to the possibility of clashing heads when attempting to head the ball? We cannot have a society where young people are wrapped in cotton wool, and prevented from playing a sport, just because of a risk of injury. I came away from school rugby with dislocated fingers, sprained ankles, a cut to the head, but no truly life threatening injuries. As world cup winner Will Greenwood has stated, life is about taking knocks and getting back up, and rugby, or other sports, can help a child learn this process.
This is not to say children should be forced into playing rugby, if they do not want to, then that is fine. However, if they do, then they should be encouraged to throw themselves into it, as my parents did with me. In my experience, rugby brought the excellent benefits of tight friendship groups, supporting parents, learning discipline and respect, and it will be one of the fond memories of my youth. Tackling is an essential aspect of the sport that I, and many others, grew up on, and what kids today are growing up on. Although analysing the health risks in rugby is a good thing and can only improve safety, banning tackling in school rugby is not the answer, and would truly take away from the game and its values.
Featured image: The Guardian