I find myself dismayed this week. The week has been dominated by the story of 70 doctors signing a letter for Government ministers calling for tackling to be banned in schools rugby – from U18 downwards.
Undoubtedly, rugby has many risks, and the tackle area is certainly one of the areas that has a higher level of risk, but they are risks that we as players, as coaches, as parents, accept and respect.
Do we need to do more to minimise those risks? Absolutely. In the case of head injuries it is the number one priority in rugby union right now, and rightly so.
What this letter suggests though is not going to make things safer, in fact, it could make things more dangerous, just not for ‘children’. The suggestion betrays a total ignorance of the game, at best, at worst it is cowardice.
To ban tackling is the same as banning the game. Banning tackling would make it touch rugby, a different sport, it has its own leagues and a World Cup. So either it is ignorance at not understanding what removing the tackle would do, or it is cowardice because it is a backhanded way of calling for the game to be banned.
That is the greatest error in this letter, forget the arguments about flawed statistics. Yes, the statistics are, at best, creative, but this is about hearts and minds, it is a PR game and defending your position by having a scrap about statistics might win the factual argument, but not the hearts and minds argument. The great error is that a call for the game to be banned would at least be respected, if disagreed with, a call for the tackle to be banned provokes ridicule in many quarters.
So let us forget the statistical arguments, let us forget the ‘health benefits’ arguments, and let us forget the developing future England players arguments in opposition to the letter, and let us just look at the simple reasons why banning tackling would be ridiculous.
Imagine you have just finished your school career. You love your rugby but you have never been allowed, or even taught, to tackle. Perhaps you are taking a gap year, so you join your local rugby club to keep playing the game you love, and to keep fit.
Suddenly you have to tackle, and not just anyone, tackle people who might have been playing the game for fifteen years, people who are fully physically developed and who know how to use it, and there you are, aged eighteen or nineteen and without a clue as to how to stop them, let alone safely.
Does that sound safer or more dangerous than being taught from a young age, alongside your peers at an equal sage in their development, by a highly trained coach under controlled circumstances? I know which scenario I would rather see my children in.
To me, that is the key issue here, the suggestion does not make the game safer. It makes it more risky, it just delays the risk.
We do not need to ban tackling, we need to coach it well. A tackle made with excellent technique bears very little risk, the risk, to my mind, comes from the penchant nowadays for a ‘collision’ or a ‘hit’.
Sport is about risk, childhood is about risk, life is about risk. If we ban the tackle because of the risk of injury, where do we stop? Ban driving because of the risk of a crash? Ban all forms of sport because of the risk of injury?
There is another aspect here, parents, coaches, and pupils have all accepted the risk when playing rugby. Is it not our decision whether to partake in something that carries risk or not?
We choose to partake, and our children choose to partake, because it is fun, we enjoy it. Is that not the very essence of sport, to have fun? People might say that being injured is not fun, and they are right, but I have never heard someone say they wished they had never played because of it.
There are measures that could be taken, perhaps state schools that play rugby could make it preferred but not mandatory, therefore those not inclined to take the risk do not have to. For private schools it is surely another matter, if they wish for rugby to be compulsory, then so be it, no parent is obliged to send their child to a certain school.
Most important though, we should continue to educate parents, players, and coaches on safety and playing safely, as we always have and always must do. Will some people get hurt, probably, is that cause to ban tackling, no.
If people want to ban rugby, then come out and say it. If you do not love the game or have experience of some traumatic and unpleasant scenario then it is an understandable position, just one I happen to disagree with and would be happy to debate. But to try to do it by stealth, how dare they.
If we want to talk about something, let us talk about head injuries. That should be the concern of everyone in the game, and the concern of those on the other side of those signatures.
As for tackling, as my very first coach ever said: ‘Lock your arms around the legs, get your head against their backside, and let gravity do the rest’.
I have yet to be hurt whenever I’ve used that technique, and it’s twenty years on.
By Angus Savage
This article is an opinion piece.