Loose Pass

Date published: March 8 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the great tackling debate …

As if we didn’t live in enough of an anaesthetized, molly-coddling, nanny-state dominated world, it would now appear that contact in rugby, especially the tackle, one of the great technical and performance aspects of our sport, is to be deemed a little bit too much for our precious little nippers.

A letter, signed by 73 health professionals of assorted academic standing (only three were not either Professor or Doctor) was handed out to a who’s who of politicians involved in either sport, education, child welfare or health on Tuesday, emphasising the risks involved with the game and asking these politicians and lawmakers directly, among other things, ‘to remove the tackle and other forms of harmful contact from school rugby’. How dare they!

How dare they? Hmmm. On Saturday I saw an 18-year-old felled by a thumping chest-high hit from another 18-year-old lock who must have been at least 30kg his superior, so beefed-up it looked as though his skin had been spray-painted on. Amateur youngsters, playing an amateur game. A normal tackle would have been a hard one, but the force of this – deliberate – chest-high hit was to snap the tacklee’s head forwards disturbingly, before the whiplash and recoil combined to slam the back of his head onto the ground as he fell. It took a good five minutes for him to be removed from the pitch. And briefly, I did think: Yes, perhaps they dare. I don’t remember any tackles like that in age-grade rugby back in my day.

It is very easy to become very passionate about this subject, for three reasons.

Firstly, children are involved, and where politicians are presented with children’s well-being on an agenda there generally arises a type of hysteria more commonly associated with the Duchess of Kent’s wardrobe or Donald Trump’s foreign policies. Opinion is instantly polarised between the ‘it never did us any harm’ and the ‘the poor little darlings need to learn the lessons of our foolish generation’ camps.

Secondly, many of those who emerged from their playing career with more or less all bones and sinews intact and marbles still in the bag instantly hold themselves up as shining examples of survival in the trenches, as well as possessing the immense depths of character that the agonies of multiple injuries and ecstasies of multiple bone-crunching tackles inculcated them with in their formative years. For every ex-player whose favourite moment is a try he or she scored, you’ll find someone else whose favourite is a tackle he or she once made. ‘Where is rugby without the tackle? There’d be no game any more. You couldn’t ban tackling, it teaches us courage.’ And so on…

Thirdly, how on earth are we supposed to develop the game and discover and nurture the international stars of tomorrow without being able to teach them one of the most crucial performance skills in the game? British schoolboys will turn soft, while those from the Southern Hemisphere will look on and laugh all the way to the next few World Cups…

The problem with all those responses, justified though they may be, is that not one of them proffers an alternative solution. Indeed, the backlash from many characters – many of whom we suspect are working chiefly on the basis of combining reason number two with a ludicrously erudite ego, has also not exactly been something we’d like to associate with the sport. Homophobic abuse, sexist abuse, threats, all have been reported – one mainstream media outlet called the signatories “a motley scrum of lefties, gender obsessives and gay campaigners”.

Perhaps the rugby response to this letter should be to pause and think. Perhaps we who believe ourselves to be gnarly old guardians of the game should remember the concussions we suffered as youngsters and have a brief mirror dialogue, where we actually question whether such an experience is really something we’d insist our kids suffer a couple of times, and consider what it is that these signatories really want.

Maybe if the current version of myself (father of two) could look in the mirror and try to talk my 16-year-old self moments after my first concussion – glaze-eyed, weak-limbed, unable to remember my surname or whereabouts and unable to warn those helping me up that I was about to be sick – I would treat that dialogue more carefully and subjectively.

A tackling ban? I disagree of course, but then I don’t really need to that much. It’s an overstatement designed to provoke debate. You can’t outlaw a sport because it occasionally causes a few knocks to heads, there’d be no sports left at all. What they want is – as the letter makes quite explicit – the risk of injuries lowered. And there are ways of doing this, there are things to acknowledge about the modern game, which is incomparable with the game that was played a generation ago on so very many levels. There is a dialogue to be had on aspects of contact in youth rugby. So we’re going to start that dialogue here…

First up: size. Aspiring kids gym these days. They streamline their diet. They train a lot more. And as a result, the impacts have simply got bigger. I look at some 16-18 year-olds these days, beards and all, and find it hard to believe I once survived in the age bracket. The risk is heightened simply because the lads have got bigger. But it is something that gives them a competitive advantage on the field… so can we or should we stop that in a sport? No. Size is a problem we can’t solve directly.

Second up: technique. Years ago, it was drilled militarily into us that you tackled with your shoulder, stuck your head on the tacklee’s arse cheeks and wrapped your arms around his legs. At the most basic level it still is taught this way, but the problem is that our heroes in the pro game are more than happy to put their head on the wrong side (as it creates an extra 10-odd kg of barrier for the tackle to stumble over), and more than happy to take or give a neck-wrenching chest-high collision (as it enhances the chances of a positive tackle that knocks the tacklee backwards). Again, about achieving a competitive advantage. Can we stop it? Yes. Could we outlaw tackles that are over the waist in youth rugby, or introduce in youth rugby a law awarding free-kicks to those who used their heads wrong? Yes. Difficult, but not impossible, and certainly, in our mind, risk-reducing.

Third up: coaching. We’ve not heard of these injury-risk aspects being much of a problem in the Southern Hemisphere, and we’d wager that a part of this is to do with the general level of coaching and philosophy. Fact is, the counterparts below the equator are taught to weave, duck, step and look for gaps more or less as they emerge from the womb (perhaps that’s the first gap they take). Contact is the second option. You only need to watch one weekend of European rugby to recognize that steps, weaves and gaps are not exactly de rigeur up north. In fact, you’d only need to attend a few training sessions to understand just how much contact is encouraged up here. ‘It’s about winning the collisions’ is an active coaching philosophy, which instils a mentality directly leading to deliberate and calculated attempts to pummel the opponent with ball in hand. Rugby’s four key performance skills are catch, pass, tackle, evade – the fourth of those is utterly absent from so much rugby in the north, at all levels. Could we change this? Yes, but it’s a long-term strategy that needs top-down leadership.

Fourth up: size. Again the pioneers are from New Zealand, who have at many levels been playing weight grade rugby rather than age grade for several years. What does this do? Well it eliminates the hormonal imbalances among kids of the same age (exacerbated by the gym culture) which has a twofold effect: the large kids find themselves challenged physically and forced by default to develop their skills rather than their straight line running, while the smaller kids find themselves included without the risking a tackle comparable to an otter trying to bring down a buffalo a couple of times a week.

Early starters develop their skills earlier, rather than just trundling unstoppably through the midgets during their formative years. Lightweights stay included, while late starters who bloom large remain within the game all the way through rather than finding themselves bullied out of things before their time because of a pituitary gland that pitched up late. Could we change this? Yes: weight-grade rugby at all youth levels would eliminate a significant part of the existing risk – not least because it could end the obsession with size. You might even find that the gym culture is dumbed down as some would wish to play in the lighter, more skillful bracket: wouldn’t that be a benefit? Better skills, more inclusion, lower injury risk… and the best naturally progress to the open grade at the top. Could we change this? Yes.

We’re not pretending to offer all the answers here, but at least let’s show that as a sport we are open to this debate, that we can recognize scientific evidence probably has some credibility and that we can keep rugby what it is for all its players as well as improve its safety for the youngsters.

And leave the concerned docs alone. As someone who has undergone a couple of operations, several hospitalisations and a similar number of concussions during a reasonable career, it is worth remembering: the medical profession is a stakeholder in the game too.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens