The answer to safe sport is quality teaching

Posted on: 02 Mar 2016

As more than 70 doctors and academics advocate banning tackling in school rugby, three teachers from ISC schools and the former Director of Sport in HMC schools reflect on the subject.

Chris Townsend is Headmaster of Felsted School, a co-educational day school in Essex with 500 pupils.

Since professionalism entered rugby in the mid 1990s, the game has encouraged a mentality of bigger is better, whether the size of the player, or the impact of the collisions.

At the top level of schoolboy rugby, the pace of the game and the commitment of the sides are both very high, and the tackle has become an offensive part of the game, with the tackler driving forward, to get control of the advantage line, rather than allowing the momentum of the tackled player to gain a small territorial advantage. This brings with it an increased risk to both players involved in the tackle – of bone injury, dislocations or concussions.

That is fact, and so the argument continues that risk is bad, and therefore we eliminate risk by outlawing the tackle. The logic is indisputable. However, life is about managing risk in many different areas, and analysing the balance between risk and benefit.

Having played rugby at a moderate level for nearly twenty years, and latterly coached and refereed at schools and clubs, I have seen huge benefits that the game of rugby can bring. It teaches about teamwork, leadership, self-discipline; it educates young people in how to win and lose, respect for the opposition, and respect for the referee (in a way that few others sports can match), as well as developing physical fitness, and even, sometimes, courage. Yes, courage is required to cope with the physical challenge, but that is a strength of the game, not a weakness.

Of course, the players must be well coached, and referees and coaches must put player safety as their number one priority. Developments in the management of the scrum, concussion awareness and assessments, and the RFU’s ‘player centred development’ programme for young players have all been initiatives based on improving player safety. There is more to be done, and the tackle area is one at which the RFU is already looking, to see if there are further steps that can be taken to minimise the risk, and so maximise the benefits of the sport.

At Felsted, the popularity of the sport is growing, not diminishing, at all levels, and we have seen the introduction of girls’ rugby in the last year, while we currently have six boys competing at national level, one who represented England in the Under 18 Six Nations, and two former pupils who played in the last round of the U20 Six Nations.

Parents and pupils can see the benefits: success in rugby is nearly always hard won, and that lesson of having to work hard to get success is such an important one in anyone’s education.

The days when contact rugby was compulsory for everyone are already over, and that is entirely appropriate. I would argue that non-contact rugby can teach ball skills and team ethic, and can still deliver a useful part in the education of children who do not relish the contact element of the game, and is a better learning tool.

To suggest that all contact rugby at schools should be ended overlooks the many benefits that the game brings to those who take part in it. It ignores the reasons behind schools investing so much time and energy into competitive sport, and the positive outcomes that sport can bring.

Finally, as a parent of a boy who plays rugby, and a girl who rides horses, I know which one causes me greater worry when I am watching.

Ben Horan is Senior Deputy Head (Academic) at Merchant Taylors' School, a boys' school in Northwood, Middlesex with 900 pupils.

I drove into work this morning, as every morning, with Radio 4’s Today programme on. The debate between Professor Allyson Pollock and Matt Perry was interesting.

Professor Pollock passionately presented her view that the tackle in rugby should be removed, as injuries resulting from it, she said, are, ‘serious, life-threatening and very frequent.’ I was staggered by the way this overblown claim was allowed to go unchallenged. However, as I thought more about it, I was moved to consider the motivation behind that statement and by the letter itself.

Any such open letter to ministers is designed to create a public debate and there can be little doubt that Professor Pollock and the other signatories achieved this. The signatories, who come from around the world from a variety of different fields, are clearly passionate about children’s welfare.

However, I would strongly argue that every rugby coach is equally as passionate about the welfare of those they coach. I have coached schoolboy rugby for 14 years, five as a coach of the Eton 1st XV. I still coach rugby at Merchant Taylors' School, where I am now a Deputy Head. I have four young sons, who play and love the game – including tackling.

I have worked with dozens of passionate rugby coaches, every one of whom would be horrified to think that they are, in the opinion of these letter writers, in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child!

The sort of bombast used in the letter and interview is, of course, frustrating to youth rugby coaches – many of whom feel personally affronted by the implicit accusation of negligence on their part. However, the level of response from the RFU and from schools has been excellent and prompted me to wonder about what the motivation of the letter writers might be.

I would be amazed if they genuinely thought that there was any realistic chance of banning the tackle from the youth game. However, if they are reminding all schools and clubs to think carefully about their protocols and procedures then my thanks go out to them. It is incumbent upon all of us involved with the youth game to do all we can to remove unnecessary risk.

All sorts of changes should be considered, including law changes, how coaches are educated, and perhaps even ‘bio-banding’, where players are selected by physical maturity rather than age.

We should, calmly, point out to those that question the level of risk in the game that the many benefits of rugby – including the tackle – outweigh those risks.

Children involved in rugby, along with their parents, are supported by schools and clubs in understanding, managing and limiting the risks involved. The signatories of this letter are, undoubtedly, experts in their field.

However, youth rugby coaches around the UK are experts in educating young children in the RFU’s core values of: respect, discipline, teamwork, enjoyment and sportsmanship that are as every bit as much a part of the game as the tackle.

Steve Burnage is rugby coach at Cheadle Hulme School, a co-educational day school in Cheshire educating more than 1,400 pupils.

The key to helping young people prevent injury is in the quality of the coaching.

When the contact area is taught properly and from an early age, injuries can be prevented as students grow into the game.

All students who take part in rugby in games lessons at Cheadle Hulme School are taught all aspects of the game, including tackling, rucking and scrummaging, with an emphasis on the safety in contact.

However, if you do away with the areas of contact in learning the game of rugby, and replace it with 'tag rugby', how will our young students evolve in the game of rugby in our clubs?

This would mean young adults’ first taste of contact rugby would be at the age of 18!

The body that grows accustomed to contact through the right teaching and experience of play in a safe environment will fare much better than the body that first experiences contact on the pitch aged 18.

Another area we focus on at Cheadle Hulme School is the ethics of rugby. This goes hand in hand with the fact that rugby is a contact sport. Without contact, there is no rugby and those ethics are more difficult to learn.

Our experience at Cheadle Hulme School is that our students do want to play rugby and like the fact that it is a contact game.

If you coach something correctly, there is no need to take it away. At school, young people can learn safe techniques in a controlled environment, helping prevent injuries later in their sporting careers.

Neil Rollings is Managing Director of Independent Coach Education, founding Chairman of the Professional Association of Directors of Sport in Independent Schools, and former Director of Sport in HMC schools.

The dangers of school rugby are in the news again. Influential medics and academics think the tackle is too dangerous for children. The game is under unprecedented pressure.

However, the fact that there are risks associated with playing rugby is not news. Schools have always recognised this, and concern has never been greater. Most rugby playing schools now have industry leading medical provision surrounding the game, and give considerable attention to injury prevention. The RFU has responded to the growing awareness of the dangers of concussion with guidance and training that is more rigorous than ever.

It is possible that the game could be made safer by some amendments to existing laws, and further dispensations for the youth game. This is being investigated based on scientific, evidence based research, not anecdotal opinion. The proposal that the youth game would be safer if tackling was outlawed above the waist is highly questionable, putting heads closer to knees and boots for the badly timed tackle. Also, there are levels of the game where the scraggy, shirt-grabbing tackle is the staple defensive mechanism and it is difficult to imagine this type of game without it. Certainly, if players were prevented from entering the tackle situation with shoulders below hips, then the "jackal" technique would disappear, which is arguably the most dangerous dimension for youth players without strong shoulders and necks. But reducing injury is only part of the picture, and one where the success rate will never be 100%. It is, however, the entire focus of the game's critics.

Schools, on the other hand, have always believed that the benefits of participation in Rugby - and other potentially hazardous games and activities - have outweighed the risks. This continues to be the case. In an era where children's mental health has never been a greater concern, and when the government is concerned to promote the growth of "character education", Rugby is a game that has the capacity to have a positive influence on emotional intelligence and the development of desirable personal qualities. These include courage, determination and empathy. The sector needs to mobilise itself to put some science behind these, and other, claims, and find ways of assessing and promoting the benefits of teamwork and impulse control. It doesn't help the cause when wild, emotive and unsubstantiated claims for the game, such as "developing masculinity" appear in the press from Rugby's supposed advocates.

Rugby is not a game for everyone. It never has been. This is now more readily recognised by the introduction of programme choice and non-contact forms of the game for some pupils. However, physical contact is the essential fabric of the game for most players, and this unique feature is at the heart of its appeal. It is also integral in promoting personal development. It's difficult to learn courage from removing a Tag.

At a time when the pacifist anti-rugby lobby has mobilised itself, the challenge for the game is not to deny the dangers, but to articulate the benefits. It must optimise player welfare, but ensure that the possible value of the game impacts on all participants. The potential of Rugby to enhance lives and develop people has never been greater. But it isn't inevitable. The quality of delivery determines whether the experience is a positive one, and whether its impacts go beyond the technical and tactical. School rugby must be able to point to universal benefits (that are not available only to the big and fast) if it is to remain a majority activity. And personal impacts that are quality controlled across a school.

Despite a small number of vociferous opponents, the game has much support throughout schools and society, and enriches the lives of many. This, however, does not attract sensationalist publicity. People have an emotional attachment to the game, that cannot be directly compared with the intellectual reaction of academic opponents.Many parents recognise the value of participation, and many children of all levels of athletic ability continue to love, and benefit from, the game. It is unfortunate that this is not equally newsworthy.

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