My son is only 12 yet he has already suffered a fractured skull and a concussion from playing rugby. After his second serious head injury last year, I told him he had to stop playing. That was hard, both for him and for me but I was adamant: I wasn’t going to let him risk another serious head injury, not at his age when his skull was still growing, his brain was still developing and we had no idea what the long-term effects of such injuries might be. But don’t, please, leap to the conclusion that this is another one of those articles bemoaning the dangers of rugby and calling for tackles to be banned or for the game to be sanitised out of existence, because it isn’t.
I played rugby for 15 years. I have reported on the game, intermittently, for two decades and I’m now a qualified rugby coach, coaching – among others – my youngest son, who continues to play the game and enjoys it. Rugby is a large part of my life: I don’t want to see it emasculated. But that does not mean there do not need to be changes. The authorities have to take notice of the increasing clamour for reform and do something, or risk years of litigation and falling participation if they don’t. Everyone knows the problems stem from the tackle.
Visit any club in the country and you’ll find boys (and girls) who have shirts bearing the number and name of their heroes in the national and international game. They watch them on television, they go to matches and cheer them on in person and – crucially – they try to imitate what their heroes do when they get on to the pitch. This means they try to replicate the ‘hit’ that has become so much a part of the modern professional game but which is totally out of place in the children’s arena.
I was appalled when I watched a game played by 13 and 14-year-olds recently and saw that almost every tackle was a ‘smash’ with the tackler hitting the ball carrier front-on, in the chest.
Last year, our club in Edinburgh hosted the under-9s from one of England’s oldest clubs and immediately it became clear that we were playing two very different versions of the same game. The English children had been told, under the rule variations they used, to tackle anywhere from the chest down. I was stunned that any children, let alone ones as young as eight, were being told it was alright to tackle above the waist. The Scottish boys had been told, under the Scottish Rugby Union’s code, that they had to tackle round the legs. It is a fairly simple proposition, but if the tackle is done right, taking an opponent down by the legs, there should be no risk of injury to either player. But, if the tackle is done wrong: either if it is too high, or from the wrong angle, there is every risk of injury, to both players. This is the right approach. It is promoted by the SRU although, unfortunately, it is not enforced as rigorously as it should be. From what I've seen from England, though, it doesn’t seem to be enforced there at all.
Children should be penalised and warned the first time they tackle an opponent higher than the waist and sent off the second time they do it. The ‘hit’ should be banned until the age of 16, at least. But there is another problem too. I know of one school where boys are going in early in the morning for strength and conditioning training – at the age of 14. This is another of the unfortunate, unsavoury trickle-down effects of professional rugby: everyone is supposed to be bulked up and muscly. However, all this does is create size and weight imbalances and leads, inevitably, to injuries.
Children’s rugby was a safer game in the past because it was played by children of all shapes and sizes, no-one was artificially bulked up (which is dangerous when they are still growing) and no-one tackled above the waist. If we can get back to that - and we can if the authorities had an ounce of sense about them - then we could save the game we love, head off these increasingly demanding calls for wholesale changes and prevent children – like my son – from having to retire at the age of just 12 because of injury.
We do not need to ban the tackle. We do not need to stop children playing but we do need to be aware of the effects of the professional game on our impressionable youngsters. We also need to enforce sensible and effective laws which, in many cases, already exist.