The call to remove tackling from schools’ rugby: Some myths and misconceptions

This week, the call to remove tackling from schools’ rugby in the United Kingdom has flared up once again with much heated debate and anger. Emotions have run so high that World Rugby has called this call ‘extreme and alarmist’. Much of the debate, unfortunately, has been lost through the polarisation of positions with little unpicking of reality. So much so, there are a number of myths that need some further attention and discussion.

I will be up-front I am for the removal of tackling from schools’ PE. Rugby union and rugby league have a similar injury profile to other contact sports, which is unsurprisingly higher than non-contact sports. In the UK, it is also the dominant, if not only, contact sport that is delivered in the physical education curriculum. Concussion, sometimes termed traumatic brain injury, is a serious component of this debate. Most weeks more evidence shows a plethora of studies linking concussions with long-term cognitive problems. These have included Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Multiple-Sclerosis, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and even a range of social issues, such as increased likelihood of disability claims and so on. Again, it does not take an expert to tell you that rugby will have a higher rate of concussion than other sports.

We can also see high rates — around three quarters — of schools making contact codes of rugby a compulsory part of the physical education curriculum. But while the activity is mandatory, training for teachers is not. There are no requirements for teachers to have ever even watched rugby before they can teach tackling or scrummaging. A survey of secondary schools in Oxfordshire recognised that only around 35% of PE teachers had a rugby coaching qualification, which could be historic and out of date, and less than 30% had referee training. It seems we have this melting pot of problems, so something should be done.

Of course, the proponents of the game have defended the sport and raised a number of problems with or alternatives to the ban of tackling in schools’ physical education. The most interesting is the concerns of physical inactivity. I agree, physical inactivity is an issue and one that sport, education and society collectively needs to address. However, suggesting that removing contact in school PE would increase physical inactivity is disingenuous. Children will still have physical education and for those two hours per week will still be physically active, hopefully doing a non-contact code of rugby. Interestingly, non-contact rugby is more inclusive (could be mixed genders) and has a lower player to ball ratio, meaning more time playing. The health issues associated with rugby also need to be noted though. There are a number of health issues that former rugby players have much higher rates. This includes osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, joint replacement and anxiety. They do have lower rates of diabetes though.

There has also been furious debate on if teacher training (or coach education) would be an alternative to the ban on tackling. Evidence on this at present is equivocal. Especially in regard to teaching tackle techniques for the reduction of concussion. Say for a minute that education was the answer, then surely it would be mandatory. At present, England Rugby only recommend being a qualified coach, rather than making such a move mandatory. I have already highlighted above that the majority of teachers do not have a rugby specific qualifications and there is no requirement to do rugby contact as part of teacher training courses.

The concept of better tackle techniques is also fascinating. Unfortunately, in a tackle there are two people at risk, the tackler and the ball-carrier. Research shows that players prioritise their performance and winning the ball over their opponent’s safety. Rugby tackling, after-all, is a gross-motor skill, it is dynamic and changing every second in a game. If it was so easy to make it safe with some coaching, why do we see the best trained players having the highest level of injuries? It is much more complex than just training, otherwise these issues would be solved by now.

If the tackle is removed from schools’ physical education, some believe that later when a player does need to be tackle, there will be more injuries. While this point has some merit, it forgets that we are not calling for a ban in the community game. Children, and their parents, who choose the sport can still learn and develop the skills of contact rugby in the community setting without pressure. But for all those children who do not want to go on and play rugby, they are not forced to do an activity that has a relatively higher risk of concussion or injury that other school sports.

Finally, many people have said that simply the benefits outweigh the risks. I sympathise wholly with this argument as I certainly have benefitted greatly from rugby. I think we need to be clear, we have to be talking about the benefits of tackling, rather than rugby. At present, there is no reason why all of the benefits associated with rugby cannot be achieved in a non-contact version of the game, or via playing a multitude of other sports. In fact, I’d argue there is more benefit to non-contact games with a lower risk of injury.

The issue of tackling in schools’ rugby will continue to rumble on and many will continue to get upset. I don’t blame them. The game we all love is being challenged and questioned. But it is important, if not essential, to remember that the game should be challenged and questioned if the goal is to make physical activity better for our children, and most importantly improve safety. If removing the tackle is the only way of doing that, children’s health is more important every time for me.

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