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Should We Take The Tackle Out Of School Rugby?

View profile for Malcolm Underhill
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On 1st March 2016, 70 health professionals, academics and doctors wrote an open letter to ministers of health, education, and sport, and the chief medical officers and children's commissioners in the four nations of the UK, as well as the Republic of Ireland. In the letter, they asked that the ministers and other recipients examine the evidence and remove the collision elements of rugby from the game when it is played in schools.

Rugby Union and Rugby League have recently been highlighted as two of the five sports the UK Government wants to focus on to encourage school children to participate competitive sports. However, the risks of injury to children playing these high-impact collision sports is well-documented, and apparent to all who visit any A&E department on the weekend.

But would removing the tackle take out a vital element of the game?  Should 16 and 17  year -olds be forced to play ‘touch’ rugby, a version of the sport traditionally played by pre-schoolers? 

The injuries associated with rugby

The average risk of injury associated with rugby is 28 percent. These injuries include fractures, ligamentous tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries and head injuries, which can have short-term, life-long, and life-ending consequences for children.

However, it is the long-term consequences of repeated head trauma that concern health professionals and child safety experts the most.  The risk of a child or adolescent rugby player sustaining a concussion over any given playing season is 11 percent and tackles are responsible of 87 percent of the concussions received.

Death of a school boy

In 2013, Northern Ireland school boy, Ben Robinson, died after being hit in the head multiple times during a rugby game. An investigation subsequently showed that the 14-year-old should have been removed from the field after the first blow.

At the inquest in 2013, the coroner ruled that Ben had died as a result of second impact syndrome - which happens when a blow causes swelling to the brain before it has recovered fully from an earlier injury. His death led to concussion awareness programmes being organised throughout Northern Ireland.

The argument against taking out the tackle

Those against tackling being banned in school rugby argue that injuries result from participating in swimming, cricket, cycling and many other types of school sports, yet no one is asking for elements of these sports to be removed or moderated. They also point to a recent survey which shows that 80 percent of parents have never prevented their son or daughter participating in an activity due to the risk of injury.  Furthermore, 90 percent of parents believe that the benefits of sport outweigh the risks.

Dr Colin Michie, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was also unconvinced, commenting to a national newspaper: 'Until there is clear cut evidence that rugby in the young is posing a specifically greater risk than other sports, banning would be a mistake.

The arguments for a ban on tackling

The authors of the open letter state that “A link has been found between repeat concussions and cognitive impairment and an association with depression, memory loss and diminished verbal abilities, as well as longer term problems.

“Children take longer to recover to normal levels on measures of memory, reaction speed and post-concussive symptoms than adults”.

The letter also points out that under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 17), the Government has a duty to warn children about the risk of injury posed by playing rugby.

In Conclusion

Reaction to the open letter calling for a ban on tackling in school rugby has been mixed. With the rise in childhood obesity and a general concern about the lack of activity among children growing up in the digital age, should we be trying to restrict the scope of a game that has been played in schools for 200 years?  Or do the risks of permanent brain injury outweigh the health benefits?

This is not an easy question to answer and we must now wait for the recipient’s reactions.

At IBB, our personal injury team, led by Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you or your child has been affected by a brain injury. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on  0333 123 9099, email us at  or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence

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