Banning tackling from youth rugby.

In response to Ross Tucker’s article, ‘Injury risk and a tackle ban in youth Rugby Union: reviewing the evidence and searching for targeted, effective interventions. A critical review (Tucker, Raftery & Vergagen, 2016)’, Ger made the following criticism. Having nothing better to do on the plane to Dublin, I read both. Here’s my take (not hot):

Ger, if you start off with the mindset that any reduction in contact in Rugby Union will help prevent a fatal injury somewhere, then I can see how you would object to anything that challenges that axiom. And it would probably make sense to agree on first principles before arguing past each other as you and Ross may have completely different views of how rugby should change to reduce injury, and how much it can change if it is to remain rugby.

I think it is fair to say that Ross’ assumption is that high impact tackling will remain a part of the adult game of rugby, despite the known risks of adult-sized bodies colliding at adult-sized speeds. That’s probably a fair assumption, and why the sporting landscape ranges from non-contact to fighting. I saw the article as a warning that ‘the path to hell as paved with good intentions’. This is in the context of doing something at youth level that could result in more serious injuries at adult level once the proverbial gloves come off.

It appears that your starting point is that rugby may need to change radically in order to prevent the greatest number of injuries to the greatest number of players, young and old. And that informs your position that any resistance to removing tackles at youth level must be an attempt by rugby’s administrators to emulate ‘Big Tobacco’ by buying research to support morally questionable positions. It would be fair for Ross to take umbrage at an accusation that any acceptance of funding to do research inherently requires the researchers to comprise their principles. I have good faith that good scientists will be drawn to the conclusions the evidence presents. And where there is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion, to suggest further research that may help provide that evidence. This article met that standard in my estimation.

What might non-contact rugby look like as a game for youths and adults alike? Is there already a no-contact variant of rugby akin to ‘flag football’ in the U.S.? If you’re not familiar with it, flag football is a popular way to enjoy some of the skills of American Football without having to suit up or expose oneself to the risk of contact injuries. But American Football’s stop/start single-phase nature lends itself particularly well to this method of concluding a ‘down’ before both teams reset for the next down. How would this concept work in a continuous, multi-phase game like rugby without changing it beyond recognition? And wouldn’t such a radical change make rugby lose its appeal for those who enjoy the mixture of strength, speed, toughness and skill that draws them to rugby over other sports in the first place?

The article is relatively benign and hardly strident. It merely provides a reminder that the first obligation of rugby administrators before implementing change is to ensure that they do no harm. It seems a reasonable contention if you accept that adult rugby as we know it will continue to expect its practitioners to engage in robust tackling. The strength of your reaction to the article seems disproportionate to the strength of the argument made by the article, which is basically to leave the status quo in place until an evidence base is available to support any proposed changes. I certainly don’t see anything in the six pages I read to suspect that the motive of the writers is to serve a hidden agenda, as your accusations suggest. I would not feel comfortable standing over that accusation. I doubt you will either.

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