The debate this week around the much publicised petition to ban tackling in schools rugby has been fascinating.
There has been an overwhelming response from the rugby and non-rugby community largely declaring the notion as ridiculous. As a former player with huge passion for the game I am a vociferous member of the ‘Don’t Ban Tackling!’ club. That said, I am worried the petition has gathered the support to get as far as it has, and by the fast developing negative perceptions of the game.
I grew up spending every weekend in a rugby clubhouse, and love all aspects of the game, the outside break, the kick-chase, the mauls, the big hit. You cannot take these out of the game without fundamentally changing what it is and how it’s played.
I’ve had my fair share of injuries, nine knee operations, a broken sternum, separated shoulder, chipped vertebrae along with a broken nose and several broken fingers. I also had most of these whilst at school.
Were these injuries a direct result of my playing rugby? No, in many cases they were the consequence of over-training, repetitive strain, and growing by half a foot in 18 months! I remember the frustration at being injured, of sitting out games for months on end. Did injury impact my school work? Potentially, but I seem to have come out the other side reasonably well. Critically though, my experiences taught me to understand set-backs and built resilience long before I was aware or appreciated it.
I loved the contact element of rugby, and still do. As a teenage boy rapidly trying to understand my place in the world it provided a mental release. The opportunity to train in the evening for an hour and a half, to run at people and make tackles was brilliant. If I hadn’t found that release through rugby, I’m absolutely positive I would have thrown myself into the next available sport or pastime, be it climbing trees, playing football, boxing, or scaling mountains. All hold their respective risks, but then so does the drive to school in the morning!
I firmly believe rugby should be played in as many schools as possible, at all ages and both sexes. Despite this, a part of me was actually pleased to see the issue come to a head. We cannot ignore the voices of those who disagree with myself and others. We need to change perceptions.
When watching the Rugby World Cup last year, after seeing a player leave the field with a head injury my partner said to me “If we have children, there’s no chance they will play rugby!” It was tongue in cheek (I think!) but the point still stands. To those who don’ t play rugby, or haven’t grown up surrounded by it, watching 20 stone men flying into each other on their high-definition TVs in slow motion replay, is more than enough to instil fear.
Those involved in rugby know that an U8’s or U15’s match bears absolutely no resemblance to the games we watch at Twickenham or on our TV screens at home. Without this understanding they cannot contextualise this fear. To help solve this, rugby clubs and schools must continue the excellent work initiated by the RFU and continue to bring as many new families to the game. We must also continue the brilliant work in developing as many coaches as possible particularly at a school and junior level.
My only and slight bug bear with rugby (and this applies to sport as a whole) is that the leading medical and performance technology and research lies at the elite level of the game.
Rugby is a contact sport, there will be injuries – it is a case of reducing the frequency and severity of these through effective coaching and screening. In my opinion, the safest place to play rugby is at Twickenham for England – you have the best technology, television replay (to aid diagnostics) and the very best medical staff on hand to help immediately. If you are playing a game for your local club or school you might not have such immediate or qualified help and support. (this is not to knock the incredible work at community clubs and schools but rather to state the difference in resources between themselves and the elite).
What would I like to see? A set-up whereby those playing at the grass roots of the game and in schools have access to the same level of equipment, technology and resource as those at the elite end. And I want rugby to shout about it! If we need to change perceptions, we need to continue investing and we need to let people know.
I very much doubt schools and clubs will have the resources to implement this and therein lies much of the issue. A potential solution? The Government doesn’t ban tackling but invests more into the game. In addition to this, we need more of leading corporations who believe in rugby, the values of the game and the importance of grass roots to help move the game forward. My dream? to see rugby become a bastion of sporting medical excellence, copied around the world.
We are actively looking for solutions to reduce injury, increase involvement and improve performance in rugby. Join us.