Controversy has recently hit the rugby community after a collection of 70 doctors, public health professionals and leading academics signed an open letter to Chief Medical Officers and government ministers urging contact rugby be banned in schools.
We spoke to a Adam White, a leading voice of the campaign and co-founder of the Sport Collision Injury Collective, and Dr. Jay Coakley, a Professor Emeritus of Sociology from the University of Colorado (and signee of the open letter), to get their thoughts.
What the Campaign wants
“Preventing injuries in children playing school rugby” outlines a five-pronged list of concerns that they hope to change through removing tackling from rugby in schools.
Central to the campaign is the risk of serious injury that under 18s are exposed to due to a high-impact sport such as rugby. Coupled with the increased body of evidence we now have outlining the dangers of concussion and long-term head injury, the letter calls for an end to contact in school games of rugby.
Adam White mentioned a recent study that outlines the very problem he hopes the campaign will stop.
“...recent study in Ulster found 38% of all school 1st XV players had received at least one injury across a season with 49% of injuries requiring 28+ days away from the sport”
White highlighted how teachers often lack the required level of training to recognise and treat those who are injured.
“In Oxfordshire, only 38% of teachers who deliver rugby had completed a rugby coaching course. Only 14% of state school teachers had received training on concussion.“
This comes in an age where academic study into concussion is growing stronger. With links between repeat concussions and depression, memory loss and diminished verbal abilities now confirmed – those involved in the campaign believe change is the only way to reduce these injuries.
The campaign looks to remove tackling from school rugby, not that of community clubs across the UK.
“...in school(s) rugby is often placed on the curriculum for PE and therefore is required for students to participate. Parents have reported that this has been made mandatory against their and their child's will.”
In community clubs, there is an element of choice – where a child can or cannot take part. It's in schools, where the RFU are part-way through a programme to introduce rugby to a million children in state schools across England – that this campaign looks to end mandatory contact rugby. This point was supported by Dr Coakley.
“18 is often used as the age of legal and informed consent. Prior to that age others have power over the decisions made by minors. Until we know more about brain development and brain injuries, we should assume that the brains of young people are more vulnerable to damage due to trauma”
The open letter has proved hugely controversial in both the rugby community and wider sporting public. England prop Dan Cole was among those to oppose any ban, citing the need to learn the correct tackling technique at a young age.
Ban tackling until 18 in Rugby??!! This is a wind up! Change to weight classes instead of age. Let the kids build resilience and discipline.
— Nick Evans (@nick10evans) March 2, 2016
“It is vital to ensure players are taught the correct tackling techniques in rugby. If they are prevented from tackling until they are 18, they will be ill-prepared for adult rugby and would be more likely to sustain serious injury as a result.”
In response, White went back to the difference between mandatory rugby in schools and making a conscious decision to take part in community club rugby.
“...there is no compulsory situation whereby an 18 year old will be forced to suddenly compete. They will make a conscious choice. Likewise, we are not suggesting the removal of tackling from the club game and therefore they will be able to practice the tackle in an environment with more trained coaches than schools.”
Whilst that may be true, these rule changes might lead to a scenario where someone is thrown into adult rugby without the correct tackling technique - or discouraged from taking up adult rugby because of it. Dr. Coakley pointed to the need for coaches to be inventive when teaching tackling at youth level.
“There are football coaches in the United States who have eliminated tackling in their practices and have created clever ways to teach tackling without direct one-on-on hitting. Tackling dummies and other props are used to teach correct techniques....”
“...The same goes for rugby and tackle football.”
Elsewhere, concerns have been raised over the long term effects on participation levels that these rule changes might bring. The campaign would halt the amount of rugby played in schools, and might damage long term participation if children are adopting a watered down version of the sport at an early age – which could have a knock-on effect on child obesity levels.
In response, White and Coakley both raised the point that touch rugby is actually a more energetic sport, and Dr.Coakley pointed to the popularity of non-contact American Football.
“In the United States, we are finding that when flag football replaces tackle football, it attracts more young people and elicits more parental approval and encouragement.”
For rugby, it would be a matter of engaging youngsters with touch so that they do stick with the sport into adulthood.
I put it to White and Coakley that the integrity of rugby might be damaged by moving away from how the game was originally intended, but both suggested that sport's evolve and adapt to change.
White: “Games change and the players do too. Rugby today is very different to a decade ago and significantly different to 20 years ago. Progress happens and people adapt.”
Dr. Coakley: “All sports are social constructions, i.e., they are created, maintained, and changed by people as they interact with each other....we adults often change, revise, modify game models to fit our interests and abilities—usually so we can continue to play in a manner that keeps us connected with the sport. “
It's that exact connection that I would suggest might erode if you were make such a drastic change to the way it is played at school level. Rugby is loved by many due to it's physicality, and some sort of long-term drop in participation to me seems inevitable if the changes proposed were to come into action.
Weight classification – a viable compromise?
Still, the health concerns raised by this campaign cannot be ignored. One alternative I suggested was classifying rugby based on weight rather than age. Already in use in countries such as New Zealand, instinctively this would level out the playing field and, with equally sized opponents, potentially reduce the safety risks involved.
Support for this type of change has emerged in light of the letter. A study appeared in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal Case Reports which compared some of the injuries suffered in youth rugby with that of those expected from road crashes. Dr. David Morrisey, author of the report, said he was in favour of a classifying matches by size rather than banning contact altogether.
Pitched to White, there seemed an openness to the idea.
“I do see merit in categorising players by physiological characteristics (including weight, height, strength, speed etc) to ensure even matching. I would question how this would work in a school environment, as it would require a radical restructure of the school timetable.“
Wheres Dr.Coakley seemed more reluctant.
“If there is heavy contact, it would be humane to take size into account. Preferably, if there is no heavy contact, there is no need to do so.”
A cultural issue?
Ultimately, raising awareness on the health risks involving in high-impact sports like rugby is key, and this campaign has certainly put the issue into rugby's collective conscious. Whether its acted upon or not is another question entirely.
As our twitter poll results suggested, much work is to be done to convince the majority of grassroots rugby participants.
"Doctors urge schools to ban tackling in rugby"
— Pitchero (@Pitchero) March 2, 2016
Dr Coakley feels the removal of physical aspects of rugby will only help to diminish this culture.
“If children and teens learn a sport that highlights action and skill apart from an emphasis on physical domination, they will be less likely to buy into a “kick-ass, suck-it-up” approach to the game.”
Rugby is a game enjoyed by millions across the globe. It brings a number of benefits socially and to a participant's health. Personally, I worry the drastic rule changes proposed by this campaign could challenge some of benefits – but fully accept the need for greater education and awareness over the dangers of playing rugby.
Wherever you stand on the issue, only when that “Suck-it-up” culture is gone will real change come about when avoiding injuries in rugby.