Professor Allyson Pollock's recent demands to ban tackling in schools sparked fierce debate and a robust defence from the rugby community
The now annual rallying call by Professor Allyson Pollock to ban tackling in schools reared its divisive head again this week.
Professor Pollock – who is promoting a book – did her usual round robin of media outlets to outline why rugby, as a collision sport, should be doing more to protect our budding progeny from injury.
Of course Professor Pollock is justified to her opinions, based, she tells us on extensive qualitative research but her argument can only hold sway for so much and has to be offset with rugby’s enduring qualities that are far less measurable.
I must divulge that I played mini rugby from the age of six, and had my fair share of bumps and bruises (dislocated shoulder, multiple broken noses, knee surgery). Perhaps I should be wary my 10-year-old son is following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps by playing the game, but I couldn’t be happier.
I worry, like any parent, at the increasingly physical nature of the game – he’s come off injured twice in four years playing – but the growing bond he has developed with his teammates and the ethics he’s learning of respecting the referee, shaking the hands of opponents, not to mention a couple of hours of exercise a week, are all character-forming values he will not learn playing FIFA ’17 on X-Box.
Rugby’s administrators should be given their dues – goodness knows, they get a shellacking when they get things wrong. They are trying to make the game safer at mini-rugby level with a glut of courses, aimed at making our rough-house game as responsible as possible.
One of my earliest memories was losing two teeth attempting a tackle from behind when a rogue Patrick boot clocked me in the chops. Fast-forward a generation and youngsters have two years of tag-rugby before contact, where all coaches are expected to take a Rugby Ready course, followed by a gradual introduction to safe tackling; routinely drumming in the need to go ‘cheek to cheek’, wrapping your arms around the ball carrier, getting your head on the right side and falling correctly.
Instilling correct technique at a young age makes tackling instinctive and starting that in your late teens, as Professor Pollock argues, could well be counterproductive and lead to injury rates rising, rather than falling.
There is also the point that rugby helps young adolescents looking for a place in society, some whose natural métier is not in academia, or other larger-boned youngsters who feel like they do not fit into sports better suited to their lithe-limbed friends. Others with anger-management issues, or just testosterone surges, have a place to safely expend that pent up aggression in a controlled manner.
As a club, Hitchin RFC boasts over 600 Mini and Youth members, and with over 50 boys in our U11 age-group. The social and health benefits of the game on the boys and girls are clear to see, and they love the physical element of the game. ‘When are we starting contact?’ the most commonly-asked question in pre-season.
Someone who plays his rugby down the road, and is one of the best defensive midfielders in the game, is Brad Barritt. The Saracens centre has suffered his fair share of blood injuries and gave a considered response to the furore, when I caught up with him at the Champions Cup launch. “I must firstly say, any viewpoint is coming from a caring, safe perspective and that’s great. The welfare of people is more important than any sporting code.”
Barritt however, agreed that if technique is taught at a very young age it will only aid his future development as a rugby player. “If you’re kept away from the technique of having to tackle until your teens, it’s less instinctive. I can only think of my childhood in South Africa, where I played rugby from the age of five. The collisions aren’t as big. There are 30 kids honey potting around the ball. That early technique, coached correctly will prevent injuries in the future. My concern is if bodies get bigger and impacts more pronounced, tackling technique may not be as ingrained as it should be. I completely support anything that makes the game safer. In the past, perhaps tackling has been neglected; everyone loves the glamour of kicking and passing, but those fundamentals in terms of defence, are now more important than ever.”
The countdown is now on for Professor Pollock’s next missive, and rugby as a sport needs to redouble its efforts to put safety at the heart of the game without taking away its compelling physical nature.
The message should very much be, play on.