Misinformed, angry, coffee-addled ranting.
This morning, an open letter in which more than 70 academics, doctors and other fancy-pants types have called for an end to tackling in school rugby was splashed across newspaper headlines with all the grace of a drunken PETA protest at a baby seal-fur catwalk. The message was unequivocal – rugby is a “high-impact collision sport” and is causing far too many injuries, which can have both short and long-term serious consequences for the individuals involved. Thus, contact, more specifically tackling must be expunged from the sport for the sake of the welfare of our young people.
Obviously, reaction to this news was swift, shouty, bitter and merciless, exactly like any given evening with Your Mum.
Accusations that advocates want to “wrap children in cotton wool” or that “it’s political correctness gone mad” rebounded around the internet like a squash ball made of swears. The general gist of these arguments has been that injuries are an inherent part of rugby, and indeed life, and that trying to remove the potential risk would be as pointless, ineffectual and counter-productive as trying to siphon the swearing out of Danny Dyer.
Indeed, many have been talking up the positive effects of rugby, including not just teamwork, pride and camaraderie but the “character building” experiences of injury. It seems that for many, coming away with a broken bone or a grisly scar is just as, if not more beneficial than going into the dangerous battlefield and living to tell the tale. Some of the more ardent supporters of this view are perhaps missing the point a little though, seeing as some of their arguments consist of “I played rugby and got two black eyes, seven cracked ribs, a broken leg, thirteen missing teeth and three ruptured testicles and it never did me any harm”.
Certainly, war stories seem to be half the appeal of rugby. Speak to anyone who’s played the sport and they’ll regale you with tales of splintered bones and copious amounts of blood, and probably some stories about public nudity and excessive drinking as well. There’s an element of competition to these stories, a competition my brother annoyingly always wins in our household after the time he put a corner flag through his shin.
As a die hard rugby fan, I initially met this news with the howls of derision I typically reserve for man-buns or George Osborne. Despite currently having the physique of a malnourished fruit-bat coupled with the athletic prowess of a sack of soiled gym-socks, I spent several years playing the sport and genuinely loved it. I understood that rugby involved risks, and that injury was probably more likely than not but never felt genuinely unsafe in all my time on the field.
But then I thought about the fact that despite being in my early 20s I struggle with back and neck problems. There are certain matches that, looking back on I can’t remember properly for reasons unrelated to the passage of time and more related to unscheduled meetings between my head and various hard objects. So there are certainly arguments to be made that there are negative physical aspects to the game.
Thankfully, medical science and society as a whole are starting to take more notice of the dangers of concussion. Head injuries at any age are serious, but during an age of rapid physical development, trauma during school years could have even more detrimental effects. Concussions are certainly not something to be taken lightly, given the number of recent retirements, lengthy sabbaticals and dodgy-accented Will Smith movies. That’s not to mention potential neck and spinal injuries such as those referred to by Professor Allyson Pollock, one of the main signatories of the letter.
Obviously, it goes without saying that incidents of paralysis and other major injuries are tragedies. The fact that, due to what is supposed to be a fun afternoon diving headlong into mud and trying to get away with punching someone in the knackers you can now never walk again reminds us all of what’s truly important. However, as former England hooker Brian Moore points out, there is nothing to say that rugby is actually any more dangerous than any other sport. Indeed, one of the most dangerous “sports” in the world at present is cheerleading. Apparently it’s not all pom-poms and porno fantasies: broken bones, heart problems and head injuries are very real risks. Or, if you’re a friend of a friend of mine, you get launched into the air and then punched in the vagina.
With my schoolteacher brain on (it’s like my normal brain, except covered in red pen and misery), I do have to admit that it would not be good practice to have to spend every PE lesson scraping students off the playing fields. Rugby clubs continue to exist outside of school settings – though obviously not every child will have the resources, support or inclination to seek out the sport in their own time. It comes down to a question of whether you believe schools to be places where children should be able to feel safe at all times, or whether they should be giving children the opportunity to experience risks in a (hopefully) controlled and relatively safe environment.
Personally I’m somewhere in between. I believe that the experiences I had playing rugby were for the most part brilliant, and the enjoyment I got from it vastly outweighs the scrapes and scars I picked up. But I’m speaking as someone who loves rugby. As anyone who’s played the sport knows, those who give 100% will probably get injured. Those who are half-hearted or tentative will definitely get injured. Whilst students should be encouraged to push themselves and try new and sometimes scary things, forcing children to play a potentially dangerous sport is not going to be conducive to positive experiences. Equally, rugby can only be safe if conducted by people who know what they’re doing and how to make sure any risks involved have been reduced as much as reasonably possible.
The RFU have pointed to the positive benefits of rugby, as well as reiterating the fact that contact is introduced via a phased integration programme wherein only students who have proven that they know how to tackle safely will be allowed to play contact versions of the game. Of course, it’s in their best interests to talk up rugby, in much the same way that McDonalds aren’t about to start slagging off Big Macs for being unhealthy. Introducing contact suddenly, when players are fully grown is likely to lead to A) fewer people wanting to play the sport and B) to more injuries as untrained lumbering adults slam messily into one another like a fleshy robot wars with more mud and knee tape. This to me would be a real shame, as I wholeheartedly believe rugby to be an incredibly valuable and fun experience, and that removing contact from that would sanitise it to the point that it would take away half of the appeal that made it worth playing in the first place.
Ultimately, the main crux of the issue is whether the potential risks outweigh the benefits. Serious injuries are mercifully rare, but for many people the dangers are just too great to make the fun to be had worth it. Personally, I’m not sold on this view. I’d like to see us go the other way, and introduce full contact to other areas of human life. Replace pedestrian crossings with scrums. Get rid of ladders and just have people hoist you up by your pants like you’re in a lineout. And anyone who uses either the phrase “think of the children” or “wrapping them up in cotton wool” gets a flying tackle from Courtney Lawes.