It’s time to talk about the tackling ban

Rugby is facing a crisis. The sport’s links to concussions and brain injuries have been well documented in recent years, but is this a problem rugby will be able to tackle? One solution would be to ban contact in youth rugby. A controversial move that would threaten the very principles of the sport, writes Ryan Nixon.

What comes to mind when the word rugby is spoken? For most people, it is of course the uniquely shaped ball, the posts, the stereotype of massive rugged men playing the game and then going for pints afterwards, and of course tackling. However, the latter could be a thing of the past in youth rugby if experts are allowed to have their way.

Yes, you read that correctly. A claim has arisen from Newcastle University, courtesy of Professor Allyson Pollock, that full on contact, i.e. tackling and scrums, should be banned in youth rugby levels in schools across the world.

Presenting a previous study she had conducted, Pollok has concluded that rugby has the highest concussion rate of any sport, with 4.18 concussions per 1,000 athlete exposures, ahead of 1.2 for ice hockey and 0.53 for American football. She claims that the government has a duty to protect children from risks of injury, and that full on contact is too much of a risk.

First of all, there is the most obvious statement that people refer to initially. If one does not introduce rugby players to the intense contact of the sport at a young age, there is a high chance that when tackling does start, probably at around the age of 18, they will be far more likely to injure themselves.

Considering most contact starts at around the age of eight, introducing full on tackling for the first time to a bunch of basically fully grown men is a less than stellar idea. To introduce full contact properly for the first time to adults, without a previous ten years of experience under their belt, would likely result in even more injuries than it already does. With players being much stronger than they would have been at eight years old, the risk of injury would increase tenfold after throwing themselves at one another.

Rugby is renowned for tackling, and believe it or not, it can be the most appealing aspect of it. I mean come on, don’t try and pretend that kids – especially boys – wouldn’t jump at the chance to tackle each other to the ground without getting an earful for it. Removing this from the youth levels of the game in turn removes some of the appeal of it.

Now, the aforementioned statistics about concussion obviously have to be taken seriously. However, what that study fails to mention is that in actual fact, in terms of injuries received in sport, rugby places third in the list – behind football and running. This comes from a separate investigation by Benenden, a healthcare provider, who claims that football is actually the UK’s most dangerous sport with one in five people admitting they have suffered a serious injury while playing.

It claims that despite the general impression of rugby being the most brutal sport, people are in fact four times more likely to suffer an injury playing football. Obviously the concussion fact is still relevant as head injuries can be very serious but you never seem to hear people kick up a fuss about football the same as they do for rugby when it comes to injuries.

This is because people have the perception that rugby is a violent game where a bunch of massive guys are just out to seriously injure each other. Rugby, in its community of supporters and a lot of the rest of the sporting world, is often seen as a gentleman’s game, and it’s a rare occurrence for a player to set foot on the pitch with the sole intention of injuring an opposition player. Well, certainly not a player who has some sort of morals and standards – the entire concept of rugby is not a Roy Keane vs Alf-Inge Haland situation.

The long and short of it is that introducing this tackling ban at youth level is wrong. If rugby as a sport is to move forward and progress, this is certainly not the correct step to take. To only introduce tackling properly after school hinders the progress of these players and leaves them fairly inexperienced when they make the big leap from school level rugby to adult first team rugby.

So for the sake of the next generation of rugby players, let’s for once not take the advice of experts. Let’s allow these youngsters to flourish and learn the rules and tactics the same way their predecessors did, and continue to play the game that we all know and love, the way that we all know and love.


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