Who can we blame for concussion issues in rugby?

Why Rugby should remain Full Contact

In an open letter to ministers published today, more than 70 doctors and academics have called for tackling in rugby to be banned for all U18 games.

Calling rugby a “high-impact collision sport”, they argue that more than 90% of injuries in the sport happen in the tackle and the playing of contact rugby at junior levels means that more children are being put at an increased risk of serious injury, especially since the RFU began rolling out their schools rugby initiative in 2012, where rugby has now reached a further 400 schools.

In particular, they are concerned about concussion, which undisclosed evidence seems to suggest that “children take longer to recover to normal levels of memory, reaction speed and post-concussive symptoms than adults”.

A year ago I published an article on Young Perspective, discussing the issue of concussion in rugby. In that, I concluded that it was down to the players and coaches who choose to ignore safe techniques in favour of high risk, high reward tactics such as Welsh flanker Dan Lydiate’s “chop tackle” technique.

As you may have guessed from my tone in the early lines of this article, I am wholeheartedly against the idea that only non-contact rugby should be played by U18s. I apologise in advance for the rantish nature of this piece, but as I hope to prove, this is a ludicrous suggestion by the health ‘professionals’ who claim to have a better knowledge than most when it comes to rugby.

The best place to start is personal experience. Having started rugby at the age of five, I would hope that my near-13 years of experience both playing and refereeing junior rugby would give me a fairly good level of understanding of the physical demands. And it is that where I find my first issue with the argument.

Prior to penning this article, I actually just refereed an U11 match of full contact rugby. For anyone who has ever watched a game of this level, they will know that contact is fairly minimal with coaches focused on tackling technique in defence. Players should aim for the waist and below; any higher and they are at risk of a penalty.

Although not uncommon, big hits can occasionally take place, but this is usually because a player has developed quicker than others in their age group – I will come to that issue later. This match actually only saw one game-ending injury where as a player ran with the ball, he slipped and his head hit the tackler’s knee. Injury at this level is fairly minimal when compared to the professional game.

Here comes the second problem. Far too many of the public simply watch professional rugby on TV, see the number of brutal hits and think “that sport is not safe for my son or daughter”. However, the big hits and injuries only come because of the immense physical strain professional players put themselves under in a sport where size plays an increasingly important role in the top end. However, watch junior rugby and you will be lucky to see any contact as brutal as the professional game. Even then, injuries remain fairly uncommon. My worst injury from junior rugby is a fractured pelvis, although embarrassingly this came not from a tackle but a kick at goal…

12 or 13 year old boys are quite obviously not going to be the same physical masterpieces as current professional rugby players – for reference just look at the difference between Australian flanker David Pocock when he was at school and now. This means that with their bodies under a lot less pressure, injuries are going to be less common. Of course, there is still at risk, although this is a part of the game every player respects when they join the sport.

As for the worry that some junior players are too small to withstand the contact element of rugby, one sensible suggestion has been to adopt the New Zealand system where players are classed in terms of weight, not age. This is primarily done because of the sheer size of some Maori boys, but it would still be effective in the UK whilst also making sure smaller players are still included. After all, rugby is traditionally a game for all shapes and sizes.

So, we have covered the reasons for why, in my opinion, injuries do not play a major role in junior rugby. Now, however, you must consider the actual benefits to children playing rugby.

Not so long ago, I compared the abuse football referees face on a day-to-day basis compared to their rugby equivalents. The key reason for rugby referees like me receiving far less abuse than the round ball match officials is because in rugby, there is an ingrained sense of respect not only for referees, but for the players, coaches and everyone else involved in the game.

This is something taught and dealt with from a very young age. In today’s match, one player disagreed with my decision and called me out over it. I gave a penalty for verbal abuse and at the end of the game, he came up to me and apologised for what he did without even talking to his coach beforehand.

Quite frankly this is something you do not see in football. The players know that they can usually get away with shouting at the referee and anyway, if they see their heroes do on TV why can’t they do it in an U15 game on the local park? Unlike football, rugby has a clear system to deal with abuse of anyone involved in the game. What’s more, I rarely have to use these measures as a referee in rugby because the players already understand the two-way system when it comes to respect. Even more so, no one dives and no one fakes injuries. If they do, they can contemplate their stupid actions with an early shower…

Next, in a way that other sports struggle, rugby really gives junior players the opportunity to build confidence and express themselves. As anyone who knew me from a young age would know, I was a fairly quiet person in normal life. However, my many years spent playing scrum-half have meant that I soon became used to barking orders at props twice the size of me; it was something I actually enjoyed!

As a team sport where no player is to think of themselves as bigger than any other man (or woman) on the park, rugby is about a lot more than just the playing of sport itself. Sure, it is a great way of getting people active whilst still having fun, yet it is the subconscious differences that stick rugby out as a sport that can make a difference. This does not just apply to players, but also to supporters – when was the last time you saw flares and arrests at a rugby match?

My heavy links with the game, unsurprisingly, have made this a rather biased rant, but that is something I am happy to admit. When people who appear to have no idea about the sport itself other than some scientific studies try to question the way in which we run our sport, we need people to come to the forefront of the attack to defend what we love.

Thankfully, the Department for Education has dismissed the open letter, saying that those who get involved in the sport should be aware of any risks that come with playing it. I should also make it clear that I am not against the debate about reducing injury in sport. In fact, I see it as necessary for the sport to evolve.

What I do say, however, is that before you start calling for junior rugby to lose the contact element, go out and watch a couple of games. Very quickly you will see that in junior rugby, there is an emphasis not on contact, but on finding space and getting the whole team involved. You will also learn that rugby players on the whole actually respect those around them and tend not to be the hot-headed wastes of space that appear to grace Match of the Day every weekend.

Simply go out and experience grassroots rugby. Maybe your opinion may change, maybe it will not. But at the very least, please respect those of us already involved in the game who are quite happy with how it is now.

Photo Credit: Ruairidh Campbell

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Ruairidh Campbell
Based in the Scottish Borders/Glasgow, Ruairidh has written extensively on everything from rugby to politics with work published in publications including the Scottish Rugby Union's website, Scottish Field Magazine and Edinburgh Rugby's match-day programmes.
Ruairidh Campbell

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