Is It Time For Rugby To Have A Long, Hard Look At Itself?

12/09/2016 12:41

In March of this year, a body called the Sport Collision Injury Collective published a now famous letter calling for a ban on tackling in school's rugby. The reaction made interesting viewing with allegations that the authors of the letter were subjected to abuse online. This sort of abuse is totally unacceptable but also demonstrates the depth of feeling that the subject raised.

Rugby is a sport I am largely dispassionate about. Apart from a couple of periods of my life that rugby league became of greater interest, other sports have long taken over in life. One hopes therefore, I can be evenhanded about discussing the sport.

More recently than February and reported in the media, further research has been published on the subject of mild head injuries and the long term consequences. One conducted in part by Oxford University looked at head injuries in Sweden (not exactly a rugby hot spot) and found some evidence of serious long term consequences of mild injuries at a younger age. The authors acknowledge that this was not a sport injury based study and there needed to be caution in seeing their results in that context. Bottom line is: head injuries are not likely to be very good for you and you are unlikely to find anyone in medicine who thinks differently. Interestingly at the time of writing this blog, it has been reported that a rugby player may be taking legal action against his former club over their medical handling of him, the results of this case or similar ones will make for interesting reading and will have ramifications for sport across the board.

When the initial letter was published, the reaction of rugby people was to defend their sport. Quite understandably, they identified the benefits of the sport in terms of fitness, team working and camaraderie. Culturally, the game of rugby has huge significance to parts of the UK and indeed the wider world and to question it, would almost be seen as questioning a way of life. What was perhaps more interesting is the somewhat limited response from the medical profession. As highlighted in previous blogs, the medical profession's opinions on boxing are well known but they appear to be unwilling to take similar views on rugby. Rugby also brings the potential for serious neck injury which also has serious long term consequences, not an accusation that can be aimed at boxing.

Rugby will defend itself by pointing out that the full contact version is not practiced until children are older. It will also be pointed out that if there is no tackling in junior rugby, the players will never learn to tackle correctly until they are bigger and stronger. Both of which may be true but brings me on to the reason that rugby needs to have a look at itself.
Back in 1995 a man called Jonah Lomu arrived on the rugby union stage. He was famous for literally steamrolling the Underwood brothers which resulted in Will Carling describing him as a "freak". This was an unfortunate phrase but, significantly from a rugby union perspective at the start of their professional era, if Lomu was playing today he would be regarded as quite normal. Gone are the days were you could tell the difference between forwards and backs. The physique of rugby players of both codes in the modern game seems to be ever increasing in terms of size and strength. The collisions will inevitably be harder and faster than in previous generations. This means that analysing players in the past, may only give us part of a story.

In my opinion, there is a particular issue in the 14-21 age group where you can have players of considerably different size playing together and the players of this age group are the ones that will want to emulate the professional players by making themselves bigger and stronger. There may also be issues of differing experience levels of players at this level. Experience in New Zealand shows potential benefit in grouping players by size rather than age.

The difficulty rugby faces is that parents will look at the newspaper reports and will naturally be discouraged from involving their children in the sport. At a time where the choice of sports and pastimes available to today's children is greater than in the past, children who do not have a familial link with the sport may look to "safer" pursuits.

Banning tackling in school's rugby would make it safer but what needs to be acknowledged is the club game and that many young players play for their school and their club and train with both. Those players deemed good enough, may then train with and play for representative teams. It is these players who play considerably more regularly that need more careful management to protect them from potential long term consequences.

If one wanted to be controversial, taking rugby out of school entirely and leave it to the clubs may represent a safer future for children but by doing that, heritage is lost. As a footnote, it is worth noting that rugby league was banned from some schools (and indeed other institutions) for much of its history but has managed to survive, albeit within a limited geographical area. Compulsory playing of rugby seems an anachronism in the age on multiple sport availability but focus should not be on those who play rugby once a week in a PE lesson, it needs to be on those who play repeatedly, particularly as they increase in age.

To accuse rugby union or rugby league of not caring about players is manifestly unfair. They are however stuck between player welfare and maintaining the ethos of a contact sport and providing a spectacle. Head injuries are not going to go away and increased evidence of long term consequences cannot be ignored. What makes the sport more concerning that a sport like boxing is that boxing has got safer over the years but the increasing size of rugby players and the intensity of the collisions are arguably making rugby more dangerous.

Or maybe we are all just too soft?