Opinion: The Tackle Ban Debate Deserves More Sensitive Discussion

Nathan Hughes (Wasps) tends to a prone Sam Simmonds (Exeter) after knocking him out during a tackle on Sunday.

Over the past few days, rugby people across the world have been left with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Yes, the great concussion debate is raging again, and has once more been inflamed by calls to ban tackling whenever the sport is played in schools.

And, just like last time, Professor Allyson Pollock finds herself at the eye of the hurricane. By publishing an opinion piece in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) renewing her calls to have tackling and scrummaging forbidden in school rugby, Pollock has secured her own sense of uncomfortable, ghost-at-the-feast familiarity among those who care about the sport.

Predictably, the responses to this proposed ban have been (to put it politely) heated. They have also varied greatly in their levels of (to put it slightly less politely) common sense and basic medical competency.  The argument that the sport is going “soft” is commonplace, particularly from those inclined to view Pollock’s proposition as part of a sissy, Guardian-inspired, quinoa-fuelled conspiracy.

Another more sensible approach has been to talk up rugby as a positive developmental factor in children’s lives, with buzzphrases like “values”, “respect”, and “character-building” springing up with striking frequency. The temptation to resort to that argument is so great that many rugby fans have even found themselves in the bewilderingly disorienting position of agreeing with Piers Morgan.

At this point, though, I should declare my own personal biases: namely that rugby is incredibly important to me, and that I would be strongly opposed to such a ban (for reasons that will hopefully become clear).

But in terms of the wider debate, that position has be argued sensitively and, most importantly, persuasively. After all, whether the rugby community likes it or not, if growing numbers of parents are afraid of allowing their children to take to the pitch, the fundamental survival of the sport will be called into question. In short, rugby itself may depend on these arguments being convincing to parents and guardians of would-be players.

And when persuasiveness is what is required, I just don’t think the types of arguments mentioned above will cut it. However backwards you might believe her reasoning to be, Pollock is a medical professional. She objects to full-contact rugby in schools on medical grounds, and parents will be understandably worried by her links between successive blunt trauma brain injuries (concussion among them) and the latent development of serious conditions like ECT, Alzheimer’s, and epilepsy. Any counter-argument to Pollock’s case, therefore, should also be based on medical research and fact.

First of all, though, the initial step in allaying these parents’ concerns must surely be to acknowledge that they are valid. It seems strange to have to make that point, but it is baffling how often these injuries are dismissed or trivialised by those seeking to dispatch Pollock’s arguments.

It’s clear that brain injuries are uniquely harmful, and utterly incomparable to – say – broken arms or dislocated shoulders; the damage they cause is far harder to identify and far harder to heal. So, given that the risk of sustaining these injuries is clearly higher in rugby than in most other sports commonly played at schools across Britain and Ireland (it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise), it is becoming increasingly tedious to read glib, slippery-slope arguments about how hopscotch or tiddlywinks will be next for the chop:

It may be unfair to single out Nigel Owens here, because this is a really common argument being made against any proposed ban. But, crucially, it is not going win over apprehensive parents justifiably concerned with their child’s long-term mental health.

Even setting these graver, more permanent effects aside, having sustained a severe concussion whilst playing rugby myself, I can attest to the fact that it can be a genuinely horrible, frightening experience, and would be especially so for a young child. Parents are absolutely justified in being worried about this.

Equally, trying to pass these injuries off as part-and-parcel of character-building sporting development, as former England centre Will Greenwood did when the last tackle ban was mooted, is as unhelpful to the cause as it is medically irresponsible. Of course injuries are unavoidable in rugby, but refusing to budge on how they can be minimised will only reinforce the image of a masochistic, brutish sport that scares parents in the first place.

So, how might such parents be approached? To my mind, any refutation of Pollock’s proposal must meet her on own terms, and stress that full-contact rugby in schools is medically prudent. Concerned parents should be directed to another study, published in the BJSM in June 2016 by Professor Ross Tucker of the University of the Free State in South Africa (and others), which found that:

The available evidence suggests that physical development and the nature of the sport, including tackle type change after adolescence, may augment the risk of injury. This risk is strongly linked to poor technique, and it may be disingenuous to deny young rugby players the opportunity to be exposed to good teaching of proper technique during formative years, given that it is inevitable that they will be required to tackle if they persist with the sport.

It should be explained to those concerned by Pollock’s conclusions that rugby-related concussions are most often sustained by making tackles poorly, and are therefore best avoided by coaching correct technique. Still further, it should be made clear that this is best taught to players at a young age, before they grow to be faster, stronger, and heavier and the levels of concussive impacts rise.

I’ll leave it to others more capable than me to explain this evidence in more detail, but the simple truth remains that, if it is medical evidence that has concerned parents in the first place, then medical evidence to the contrary will be a far better counterweight than derision or anger.

The many sides of this debate seemed to be all contained in a single moment during Wasps’ fixture against the Exeter Chiefs on on Sunday. When Nathan Hughes carried ferociously into the Chiefs’ Sam Simmonds, the Exeter man found his head on the wrong side in the tackle and looked knocked out in the process. But, rather than re-involve himself in his side’s attack, Hughes remained on the ground to tend to his opponent.

Just as we were reminded of the bruising aspects of modern rugby, we saw how it is incorrect technique that often leads to injury; just as we were reminded of the ferocious competition of the sport, Hughes also demonstrated its values, of which we so often hear. But for a nervous parent tuning in to that match, Simmonds’ prone body on the deck will been a far more lasting memory than Hughes’ kindness.

So, while everyone who is involved in rugby knows how powerful its sense of community and respect can be, those who would defend it have a duty to discuss these issues with more perspective, and a greater awareness of those looking in on the sport from the outside. They owe it to players and coaches, but also to rugby itself, as its long term health may well depend on their approach.

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