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Tackling contact rugby in schools

Rugby builds character, its supporters say. Whether true or not, there is no research showing that tackling in rugby is vital to this: nor is their research showing that rugby builds character better than other sports. One thing we do know, scientifically, however is that full-contact rugby leads to a great deal of unnecessary injuries, including whiplash, neurological damage, paralysis and, quite commonly, concussion. This is in addition to a host of ligaments and musculoskeletal injuries; including new forms of hip fractures that doctors say they only otherwise see in car accidents.

I was one of the 70 doctors and academics who recently signed an open letter calling for contact rugby in schools to be banned. Our modest proposal is to replace the tackle with tag. Why not play Tag rugby, as they do for children under 11, in schools? It is still a stunning game of speed and agility without the tackle, and it promotes sustained elevation of heart rate all without inflicting the head trauma of constant collisions.

Exemplifying the injuries that tackle rugby brings to school children, the British Journal of Sports Medicine, has recently published an article in which the authors followed  825 school-aged rugby players in one academic year, monitoring for injuries there were *a lot*. Of the 825 players, there were 426 injuries. Nearly half of these injuries kept children from playing sport for 28 days or longer. Worryingly, there were also 81 diagnosed concussions. I believe that many of these could have been avoided completely if the game involved tearing off someone’s tag rather than tackle.

Replacing tackle with tag rugby solves other school rugby problems, too. School players are often severely missed-matched in terms of not only size and weight, but in ability. Some children receive expert training in community rugby, while other children are compelled to play against their will against them. In other words, you can have a 6ft3 Goliath (who does weights and revels in his newly massive physique) next to a puny 100 pound David (who has been forced to play rugby against his will) and they are matched together in the same group of peers. There is no contest and the results can be serious injury to the smaller boy.

To try and overcome this problem, Wellington College, one of the country’s top public schools, recently decided to weight match players in their teams. But this isn’t really realistic for the vast majority of school rugby teams, or matches played in PE. It also doesn’t address the problem of that fast-paced, head-on collisions between boys of equal weight, can be just as traumatic and injurious.

Tackle rugby provisioning schools where there is a lack of rugby training: and this is quite common. Highlighting this, in a sample of PE teachers studied, only 14 per cent have completed concussion training and only 38 per cent have completed the basic rugby qualification.

All of these issues are easily remedied by turning tackle rugby into touch or tag. It will make the game safer, yield better cardiac results and weight loss, and provide an environment where size and ability are less consequential. With tag rugby we could even compel females to play; the way many schools compel males today. So why not?

We are really up against tradition and old-school values when it comes to trying to ban contact rugby for young people under the age of 18. It seems that for many, if tradition dictates that we put children in harm’s way for the sake of playing a game the same way, we do just that. There is no health benefit from playing tackle over tag rugby; and plenty of benefit if we reverse it. We can’t play politics with children’s health.

Professor Eric Anderson
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