Tackling the school rugby debate

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of debate on whether school rugby should involve full contact or if it is better to just teach tag rugby in schools. When the debate began, my immediate thought was to keep the contact, but I’ve given myself a bit of time to think about it and thought it was about time to try to put together a balanced argument both ways on the matter.

Against the tackle

The main argument to ban the tackle is the risk of injury to the children playing. This is a valid concern, rugby is first and foremost a collision sport. At each contact, especially the ruck, the tackle and the scrum, there is a chance of a player getting injured. I have always been lucky to avoid any serious injuries, but I certainly developed enough cuts and bruises over my time to look like someone had been giving me a good beating. I’ve known plenty of people when I was at school who missed time due to injuries.Broken bones, sprains and dislocations are always a risk when going into contact.

On top of this, recent years have made a big focus on the risk of concussion. George North has missed significant playing time in recent seasons following a series of concussions, but this is not a risk limited to just the pros. I’ve helped out a bit in Junior level club rugby the last few years and seen kids pick up concussions.

There is no guarantee that playing tag rugby would completely eliminate all chance of injury, but it would certainly lead to a reduction in injuries, especially the more serious ones.

For the tackle

Rugby is a contact sport, plain and simple. That is a big part of what makes it such a popular game to watch and play. Would Twickenham or Murrayfield fill up for international tag rugby games? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it.

Furthermore, it’s not as if rugby is the only sport in schools that contains a risk of injury. Football is in itself a dangerous sport, there is plenty of chance to get injured from a poor football tackle. There is also a concussion risk in football from players attempting to head the ball, to the point that there were discussions of banning this for under 11s in America. Hockey is another sport played in schools that again naturally has a risk attached to it. Give a bunch of kids a big wooden stick and make them run around trying to hit a ball, what could possibly go wrong…?  As I said earlier I’ve been lucky with injuries, to the point that my worst injury (barring one unfortunate knock to the knee) was a broken nose doing the high jump of all events (I’m a certain kind of special). If rugby should be changed at school due to injury risk, then why should all of these other sports stay as they are?

One of the big arguments to not change rugby is that it is character building. As an 11 year old, I weighted 10 stone and was seriously unfit, I didn’t mind a kickabout with friends but would not have considered playing sport seriously. Fast forward a few months and I was a regular starter form my school’s rugby B-team. One of the big selling points of rugby is that it’s a game for everyone – tall, short, big or small – there’s a position for everyone.  If I hadn’t started playing when I did, I am pretty certain that I would be a very different person. Rugby has always prided itself on its values of respect and camaraderie, it certainly helped bring me out of my shell as a kid, and helped me through university too. Tag rugby puts ball skills, elusiveness and running lines at a premium, not a bad thing in itself, but certainly not a sport that 11 year old me would have felt comfortable in.

There is also the argument that if we delay the teaching of tackling, we will be making it harder for our pros to compete at the top of the game. Maro Itoje is only 21 years old but has 3 senior international caps (2 of them in the starting XV) and a man of the match to his name. Martyn Williams has already described him as a future British & Irish Lions captain. If he hadn’t been tackling in school, how long would it have taken him to break into the national team, or would he have missed out completely? While England as a rugby nation is certainly behind some of the top countries in terms of ball handling ability – just look at the New Zealand props during the World Cup – would delaying the introduction of tackling put us even further back in our battle to reach the top of the game?

Time to compromise?

It’s impossible to deny that playing full contact rugby will run the risk of injury. The real debate should be how can the risk be minimised so that the game can continue to expand whilst also protecting the players.

Proper coaching is vital. I lost count of the number of times I heard coaches say that it was important to go into contact with complete conviction, as being hesitant was more likely to result in injury to the players involved. A lot of the head injuries we see are at least in part down to poor tackling technique, players putting their head in the wrong place when making a tackle, or going for the big man-and-ball tackle so clashing heads. Incidents like this need to be shown as how NOT to tackle as well as careful coaching of correct and safe tackling technique. There also needs to be a greater focus on avoiding the big collision, running at a tackler’s arms and shoulders or, even better running at space, rather than running head on into a tackler front-on. Not only should that reduce the chance and severity of injuries, but it should also improve the quality of rugby played.

The good news is that the media is improving in how it deals with these incidents during a match. A few seasons back players would be applauded by commentators for carrying on playing after a knock to the head that had clearly caused them issues. They were warriors who would put their body on the line for their team, nothing was more important than the result. Now commentators are quick to discuss player safety and point out instances of poor and dangerous tackling technique, even if the incident itself hasn’t led to a noticeable injury. This shift in focus during match broadcasts will only help to educate kids in safe and proper technique.

I feel that tag rugby does have a place in the school curriculum, but not at the complete expanse of contact rugby. When I was at school, the boys were split into 2 groups for rugby: the team and the rest. Maybe the ‘rest’ category needs to be split into 2 groups, one for contact rugby and one for tag rugby. The team and the contact group should still play tag rugby to improve their rugby skills, but then at least there is a group available for any kids who do not want to play contact or whose parents don’t want them to play contact rugby.

But this is just my personal opinion. The people who get paid to make the big important decisions need to look at all the evidence and options available to make sure they are coming to the best possible outcome for all parties. Ministers, medical officers and RFU officials, its over to you…

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