Researchers from Newcastle University believe banning tackling in school rugby will reduce the risks of concussion and head and neck injuries in young men and women. However, as a keen school and now university player, I believe introducing rugby tackling techniques at an early age will teach youngsters how to properly conduct a tackle and how to present the rugby ball in order to prevent injury in a ruck. Having been introduced to mixed gender ‘touch rugby’ in year 6, it not only removed elements of the ‘fear factor’ that latecomers to the sport experience, it also gently introduced me to the physical contact nature of the game.
The researchers argue that a United Nations convention outlines that ‘we have a duty to protect children from the risk of injury’. Having come from a small school where all sports were mixed I saw more injuries from ‘non-contact’ sports such as netball, rounders and hockey than in rugby. Rugby prepares the player for contact, whether through use of a gum shield, body armour or correct technique. If our duty to protect children from injury extends to tackling in rugby, then it will extend to heading a football, punching in boxing and hitting a rounders ball. Assessing and mitigating risk is part and parcel of growing up: teaching correct technique is the sensible way of allowing those participating in sport to do so in a safe manner whilst maintaining the elements that make it a sport in the first place.
Allowing contact rugby at a young age ensures children learn the techniques needed to prevent accidents and injuries. If these methods were not taught until a much older age the risk is amplified. At the age of 14 most children are a of a similar physique and build. But, by the time they reach their late teens, the
disparities in build become more apparent. Imagine a 6ft, 13 stone forward running at full speed toward a petite winger. Without tackling experience the winger will not only lack confidence and fluidity when engaging in the tackle (which increases risk of injury), they may be put off rugby altogether. Having played rugby league from the age of 12 until I was 16 I was acutely aware that, as I grew older, the physique of the girls changed considerably but I was confident and fearless enough that I could tackle any player because I had been taught the right technique from a young age.
Thankfully, World Rugby has rejected this advice from the researchers. Clearly, the benefits of rugby far outweigh the risks. Not only does it promote exercise, a considerable benefit in addressing the obesity epidemic, but it is also a means of reducing the rates of mental health problems. The incidents of mental health issues are increasing for the younger generation and taking part in sporting activities is vital to combat this. Rugby and other competitive sports release endorphins vital to maintain good mental health. If society has a ‘duty to protect children from injury’, and we do, then by promoting full physical contact in rugby we are fulfilling these guidelines by reducing a young person’s chance of experiencing mental illness. As a participative, inclusive sport rugby promotes diversity whether it be race, colour, gender or sexuality fostering a sense of community and belonging. Banning tackling in schools would prevent young people from partaking in the sport and would undermine all the good work being done by the NHS to promote a healthy, active lifestyle.