Wednesday 29 March 2017

Tony Ward: Please don't kill the game I love

Physicality is a vital part of rugby's appeal - but player safety is paramount and we should ban above-waist tackles at U-16 level

Harry Byrne of St Michael’s is tackled by Belvedere’s Tom
de Jongh Photo: Sportsfile
Harry Byrne of St Michael’s is tackled by Belvedere’s Tom de Jongh Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Immediate reaction? The date? No, it's at least four weeks too early for that. April Fool's notion out of the equation, reality dawned.

This is for real. Apparently more than 70 doctors and health experts have written to the UK government, to chief medical officers and to children's commissioners calling for a ban on tackling in underage rugby - schools should move to touch and to non-contact.

Forgive me while I draw breath.

Recently I did a rugby forum along with a number of prominent figures in the Irish professional game. One current player, who shall remain nameless (a forward, I might add), suggested in the course of the Q&A that all of us on stage had been drawn to the game because of its physicality.

Immediately I interjected, saying count me out on that one. I did not take to rugby because of its physicality. Quite the opposite. What endeared me right from the word go at U-9 was the challenge of avoiding that physicality. I loved attacking space and making every effort to avoid getting tackled.

Because of the schools system in Dublin, and going to a prominent south city rugby playing school, Gaelic games were off the agenda. I wish it were different but it was what it was.

In a nutshell south of the Liffey it was rugby, north of the divide GAA, but north and south for those so inclined outside school, it was soccer everywhere.

I loved my underage sport and yes I shipped my fair share of injuries, but precious few if any from rugby. Right to the end of my playing days the few longer-term injuries I sustained came from round ball not oval and were in the main from waist down for the simple reason you cannot use your hands and arms for protection in soccer as you can in rugby.

Most team field sports are physical, and injury comes with the territory.

That said, I do accept that rugby, the game I grew up on, is no longer the game it once was since the onset of professionalism.

I still love the game dearly despite where it has now gone at the highest level. I loathe the slug-fests we now witness repetitively at interprovincial and international level.

Seeps

Inevitably what goes on at the top professionally seeps down to under age and rugby is no different. Kids ape what they see in Lansdowne Road, Croke Park and every other major venue the length and breadth of the land.

Young players try to replicate the playing patterns they witness on TV or in the flesh at the RDS, Thomond Park or wherever.

That and the increasing number of club coaches employed by schools have led to a changing skyline.

It is important to state that whatever steps can be taken are being taken to protect underage players from injury.

The scrum is no longer allowed to move more than one and a half metres either way, making its impact negligible.

So the statement from the 70 medics that "the majority of all injuries occur during contact or collision, such as the tackle and the scrum" is untrue in relation to the set-piece.

As for the tackle, here I believe that there is an issue, and if this high-profile open letter helps change thinking and application, then something very positive can indeed come from it.

I was brought up on the principle of 'cheek to cheek' and as a PE teacher and rugby coach in my time applied the same fundamental to teaching the tackle to newcomers to the game.

Quite simply, the objective is to place facial cheek (of the tackler) behind bum cheek (of the ball carrier), thereby using the latter as a cushion or pillow when coming to ground.

Unfortunately we are increasingly seeing young boys trying to replicate professional rugby players when trying to tackle high, the goal as much to dislodge the ball as to stop the carrier in his tracks.

Here I would like to see the introduction of a law whereby certainly up to Junior level (U-16) all attempted tackles must be below waist-high and extending that up to Senior (U-19) if need be.

But to say tackling should be banned because of potential injury is akin to banning driving because of potential road accidents.

Rugby minus tackling would not be rugby, so in effect what these 70 leading doctors and academics are saying is ban rugby - period. But without actually saying it.

The follow-on to that will be banning soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, Aussie Rules, American football and any other field game involving physical contact you care to name.

I hate the way rugby has gone at professional level but to witness schools rugby still at its most pure and simple best is special.

Just last week, those privileged to be present in Donnybrook caught a match of extraordinary skill and beauty between Blackrock College and Belvedere in the quarter-final of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup. I doubt there has been a better match in terms of quality played anywhere at any level this year, it was that good.

And if there has been one positive to come out of the increasing number of injuries in rugby, from the top down, it relates to concussion.

I myself have learnt so much about this hitherto clouded area. It's crystal-clear what should be done: the instruction to coaches is simple: any knock to the head of any description and it's straight off. No equivocation whatsoever. The days of innocent - and convenient - ignorance are now well and truly a thing of the past.

The positives of a contact team sport, specifically rugby, far outweigh the few negatives - hugely relevant though those negatives are.

Rugby's character-building virtues need little elaboration. Of course there is risk involved in a physical contact sport, and yes there will be injuries, but to suggest rugby without tackling is beyond ridiculous.

I care deeply about this great game that I have enjoyed at so many levels and in so many different roles for so long.

I want it to continue as far as is humanly possible a sport for all shapes and sizes, but tackling is paramount to any credible future.

I was hardly renowned for my bone-crunching tackling in my time, but having tried 'Tag' I confess to finding it extremely frustrating, without the essential physicality.

Of course the signatories to this call for a blanket ban occupy the moral high ground but rugby is aware of the risks associated with it and does provide as safe an environment as is practically possible.

Surely the real imperative should be in tackling obesity and not in removing the tackle from a sport that serves that healthy objective so well.

Irish Independent

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