Banning contact from rugby is not only stupid, it’s dangerous

The risk is why we play the game

This morning, it was reported that over 70 doctors and academics had signed an open letter calling for a ban on tackling in school rugby matches. Signatories stated that injuries risked in the “high-impact collision sport” could have lifelong consequences for victims, and that two-thirds of injuries and most concussions in youth matches are the result of tackles. They suggest that schools should move to touch and non-contact rugby.

I have played full contact rugby since I was a small child, starting when I was about eight or nine. I was also physically small: indeed, often the smallest person on the pitch, whether at eight or eighteen. And during that time, every single one of the impact-based injuries I sustained were the result of one of two things: shit tackling or contact technique, or outright foul play.

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And I loved the physicality of it. In my day-to-day, there was no risk anywhere. I was at a good school, getting good grades, doing nothing that exciting. But every time I stepped onto a rugby pitch I had something to fight over. There is undoubtedly a risk in rugby, but it’s precisely why so many people play the game. It’s controlled brutality. If you take the risk out of rugby, you remove the heart of the game.

There’s risk in every sport – in hockey you can get smashed in the mouth with a stick, in cricket you have a ball flying at your face every 60 seconds, and in football you can get a broken leg just as easily. There’s a certain level of acceptable risk. Sure, rugby could be doing more, but removing all risk from it is heavy-handed and extreme.

Neither of us got hurt

Neither of us got hurt

Yes, by the time I got to 15, my mum basically refused to come and watch me play because she was so terrified of me getting hurt. I was playing and training on a regular basis with guys trying to go pro, who were stacking weights in the gym at 17 that I couldn’t hope to touch even now, as an adult. At one point in my mid-teens, I played against kids who were easily clearing 100kg plus. But I’m living proof that safety and full contact aren’t mutually exclusive. I rarely got injured, never got a concussion, and had an incredible time – most of my favourite school memories are from being on the rugby pitch with my friends.

Rugby gave me self-confidence. It gave power to my body, something you’re desperately in need of when you’re five foot one, thirteen and puberty is beginning to hit. That self-confidence came from the knowledge that the six-foot monster I was playing against wouldn’t get past me, that I could take him down.

See you later babe

See you later babe

The only time I ever got injured while playing rugby was when I got flattened off the ball. And it’s not just me. The rare impact injuries I saw were inevitably from people who held their bodies in the wrong position. It’s something that you can teach – directing people on where to put their heads when they’re tackling in order to minimise the risk of concussion, coaching them on how to fall during a tackle. High injury levels should make coaches look to themselves, not to the doctors.

Yes, others got injured more than me, and perhaps I was lucky. But there are ways to minimise danger without removing the soul of the sport. Shifting to a New Zealand-style system  (where they organise teams by size, rather than age) would protect smaller, less confident players, while allowing over-developed children to keep learning the game rather than trampling over everyone else.

Our victorious Sixth Form Sevens team

Our victorious Sixth Form team

If anything, removing contact from the game makes it all the more dangerous for when players turn 18. Suddenly allowed to hit people, they won’t have any experience on how to tackle, what techniques to use, and instead of being a five stone ten year old, they’ll be a fourteen stone prop flailing around with no idea of what safety means or what’s sensible or not. That is far more dangerous, and will only lead to more trips to A&E. And it will kill the game as we know it.

Photos: David Walker.

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