Banning tackling in schools rugby may actually increase the risk of players suffering serious injuries during their late teens and 20s, research suggests.
A campaign backed by doctors and academics was launched earlier this year calling for tackling to be banned in schools, claiming the risks of injury to children are too high.
However, a paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine says such a ban is unnecessary in younger age groups and even counter-productive in that it would store up more serious problems for post-adolescence because players would not have been exposed to years of good coaching in proper tackling techniques.
The paper has been written by three academics, two of whom work for World Rugby, the sport’s international governing body. The lead author is Professor Ross Tucker, from South Africa’s University of the Free State, who said he had been given a research role by World Rugby specifically to improve player safety.
Tucker argues that outlawing tackling in children’s rugby is not the answer. He told The Times: “We [World Rugby] are not trying to defend a fiefdom and silence the criticism. The most frustrating thing about much of the criticism is that it is suggesting nothing is being done to improve player welfare. There are many, many initiatives and research studies under way to manage the risk to players without changing the structure of the sport.”
Tucker’s paper states: “An intervention [ban] such as has been proposed may be unnecessary and may also lead to unintended consequences such as an increase in the risk of injury later.
“It seems clear that up to the period of adolescence (age 15 years), the risk of injury in rugby union is low. There is little evidence to suggest that rugby union exposes youths to risks that are any greater than those involved in a range of team sports.
“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 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 to a certain age.
“The danger of removing the tackle from rugby in schools as has been proposed, is that it would deny the need and opportunity to many young players to begin learning a skill set which evidence suggests is both effective (for performance) and protective later in their rugby playing careers.”
Tucker said rugby had reacted to research by reducing the loading on front row players in scrums, with the pitch-side assessment of head injuries reducing the number of players continued to play with concussion.
His research also states under-13 players are only injured on average of once every 168 matches and that among younger age groups rugby does not stand out compared with other sports such as football and basketball. In New Zealand, one study showed a greater proportion of injuries reported in netball. The campaign to ban tackling was launched in March with backing from Professor Allyson Pollock, of London’s Queen Mary University, who has long argued about the dangers of rugby.
She claims players up to the age of 18 or 19 had a 28 per cent chance of getting injured over a season with “hundreds of thousands of concussions”.