Schools’ Rugby – Is Tackling Essential or is the Traditional Game Just Too Tough?

This week, schools’ rugby hit the headlines, with members of the medical profession writing an open letter to UK and Irish ministers, children’s commissioners and Chief Medical Officers, calling for tackling to be banned.

According to the BBC, the letter’s signatories argue that tackling and other forms of contact, such as taking part in the scrum, are responsible for the majority of injuries and concussions suffered by young rugby players. With some children having suffered serious long-term health problems, and even dying, as a result of accidents on the rugby field, and many others being forced to take time out from the classroom to recover from minor injuries, they believe the risks involved in schools’ rugby are too high to be acceptable.

So is it time for us to change school rugby’s rules and ban tackling – or even stop our children from playing it at all – or should we allow it to continue in its traditional, full-contact form?

Rugby – A Sport with a Long History and Recognised Benefits

Rugby’s been played in British schools for more than a century and, whilst the story of William Webb Ellis’s foray down a sports field with a football in his hands is apocryphal, it’s helped to promote the idea that the game is suitable for under 18s. The sport is even compulsory in some independent boy’s schools.

Playing rugby can have a range of health benefits and, with concerns about the rising levels of childhood obesity repeatedly featuring in the news, there’s a strong argument for allowing youngsters to keep doing it. Regular participation in the sport can help to build a player’s muscle strength, as well as improving flexibility and endurance, and playing a game of rugby’s also a great workout for the heart.

It’s not just the body that it can have a positive effect on either. As with participation in any physical activity, playing rugby releases endorphins that can minimise stress and help to ensure that players sleep well. Fans of the game also claim that taking part in rugby teaches children values that will be vital to them in later life – the importance of effective teamwork, sportsmanship and discipline, for example.

Is that enough to justify rugby’s place within our schools in its current form, however, or could children get the same benefits from playing non-contact versions of the game or even other sports?

Schools’ Rugby – Attracting Support from the Government, Players and Parents Alike

The British Government clearly thinks that rugby has an important place within the country’s schools. In May 2015, the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan, M.P., announced that £500,000 of the Department of Education’s £3.5 million ‘Character Grants Scheme’ budget would be used to plan and develop rugby-based schemes in schools.

The schemes were to be designed and executed by fourteen leading rugby teams, including all twelve competing in the sport’s Aviva Premiership, with the aim of building character in disaffected youngsters and encouraging them to be resilient.

Quoted in the Government’s press release at the time, Nicky Morgan claimed that that “all young people should learn from” the game’s values. “Rugby teaches how to bounce back from setbacks, to show integrity in victory and defeat, and to respect others, especially your opponents,” she said.

Since news of the medics’ call for a tackling ban came to light, many young rugby players and their parents have spoken out in the press and on social media, arguing that they feel the game is safe enough already if it’s being taught correctly and the correct kit is being worn. Some also stated that without teaching young players to tackle correctly from the start, the likelihood of them being injured when they were finally old enough to play the full-contact version of the game would be much greater.

Contact Rugby for Young People – What are the Alternatives?

Many people, including the medical professionals campaigning for tackling to be banned, however, would argue that the benefits of playing contact rugby in schools are simply not worth the risks involved. With common rugby injuries including everything from bruises and sprains to fractures and concussions, perhaps we should be looking for alternative ways for our children to get fit? If so, what other options are available?

1. A Complete Ban

The most extreme option would be to ban children from playing rugby entirely. However, apart from depriving keen players from doing something that they love and which has many benefits, taking such a drastic measure would cause uproar amongst rugby fans and those resentful about being cosseted by the ‘nanny state’. It would also be likely to have a negative effect on the development of the sport within the UK, affecting our chances of performing well in international tournaments in years to come.

2. Non-Contact Rugby

Not all forms of rugby require players to tackle each other in the traditional way. Semi-contact and non-contact versions of the sport have been growing in popularity around the world. One option would be to switch to playing “touch rugby”, in which players touch the ball or one of their opponents instead of performing tackles. “Tag rugby”, a semi-contact alternative, in which players try to pull the Velcro tags worn by their opponents rather than tackling them, could also be considered.

3. Age Restrictions

Finally, schools’ rugby could be allowed to continue, but with added age restrictions. Children could be banned from playing until they reached a certain age, and initially be restricted to non-contact and semi-contact versions of the sport. Whilst this may satisfy some supporters of a tackling ban, however, the issue of “how young is too young?” would certainly become the cause of heated debates.

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