I HAVE spent three of the last four weeks travelling between London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin for rugby-related work.
So, when a group of 73 academics and doctors in the UK proposed a ban on tackling in rugby at school level, I found myself involved in rugby‘s latest hot topic at the front lines.
The proposal said the risk of injury to young rugby players is unacceptably high and, because most injuries happen during tackles, they should be banned in schools to protect children.
That was supported by a research article that suggested an injury happens once a match in players aged between 9 and 18.
And yes, most injuries do happen in the tackle, as dozens of studies on rugby injuries have shown.
However, at some point facts fade and emotion takes over; the debate unravels into “us versus them”, a kind of good-versus-evil battle for either the purity of the sport, or the safety of the young rugby player, depending which side of the divide you occupy.
So, I want to take this opportunity to try to provide some balance, because this is a topic where adopting either extreme view — banning the tackle, or dismissing a rugby safety issue outright — carries potentially harmful outcomes for the most important people in the debate: the player.
Let‘s begin with the proposal to ban the tackle. It is a radical suggestion and would change the sport.
In my experience extreme solutions never work, because:
a) they‘re almost always too simple, and thus ineffective and likely to cause unintended consequences, and
b) they polarise complex issues in a way that undermines any good they may do. They are, to be frank, strategically dumb.
I have two problems with the tackle-ban concept. First, the data supporting the call for a ban is flawed.
It wrongly grouped children aged 9 to 18 together, and concluded that a combined risk for them is one injury per match. The problem with this is that injury risk increases after about 16, so when you add these older adolescents to the group, it skews the risk to younger ones.
Children younger than 15 actually have a risk that is much lower than the risk of playing any other sport.
This was never acknowledged, and the group went instead for a type of “fear science”, distorting risk at younger age groups.
Perhaps, more importantly, the inescapable reality is that, at some stage tackling will happen in rugby. Poor technique is a crucial factor in injuries that will occur in the tackle and so a tackle ban may deprive children of the need and opportunity to learn good technique.
It may unintentionally increase the risks later in a young player‘s life.
The emotion and fear created by this extremism would be better spent motivating for better coaching, technique and being smarter about the tackle, rather than trying to remove it altogether.
With that out the way let me turn to the other extremists, who I‘ll call the “safety denialists”.
I am alarmed by some of the responses I‘ve seen to the tackle proposal, both here and in the UK.
While I disagree with the ban, when people are trigger-happy denying the risk of injury in rugby, they actually lay a foundation for the risk of injury to rise.
Cries of “this is a man‘s game, so toughen up”, are a root cause of what has been recognised as the very important need to make player welfare a focus.
This should not be denied by anyone. World Rugby, the SA Rugby Union, and indeed every major union has recognised this and has implemented programmes and invested significant resources to reduce this risk.
A macho attitude and cries of “smash them” run the risk of compounding a problem through ignorance.
The solution in this difficult debate is not to ban tackling. It‘s unnecessary in young children under 15 and may be counterproductive, and even dangerous, later. Equally, no good will come of discarding‘ the opinions of those who are working for the welfare of young players, however unhelpful their proposed solution may seem.
This, more than any other, is a time to listen, meet in the middle and solve a problem so that everyone benefits.