Tackling the tough issues: Is contact rugby harmful to our school children?

Huge rugby players dominate the professional game and have an even bigger monopoly at schoolboy level. Ross Barnett finds out whether banning contact in youth rugby is the answer to the sport’s problems.

Four-and-a-half years ago I was playing in a rugby match like no other. It was a frosty, cold Wednesday afternoon in a third XV cup game when one of my team mates broke his back in a freak rugby accident, restricting him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.


Ulster U19 player, Adam Hanna on his home farm in Dromore, Co Down.

That event changed my perspective on rugby and while I hold the sport very close to my heart, there are issues surrounding injuries that need to be dealt with.

Rugby players are getting bigger and heavier and recently Professor Allyson Pollock, director of the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University, advocated a ban in schoolboy scrums and tackling in an article for the British Medical Journal.

She pointed to statistics in America in which rugby related injuries were on the rise, as well as having the highest concussion rates in children per 1000. It is a striking and worrying statistic, so why do people still like playing rugby?

“I like the physical and competitive aspects of it,” answered Adam Hanna a 16-year-old Northern Irish schoolboy: “There’s a lot of respect between players and it’s a great way to make friends.”

I made the journey to watch his match to gauge the attitudes of some of the players about this issue. Afterwards, I visited his farm where he lives and works part time.

“My dad played rugby and I was part of a rugby family, so I had to keep up the tradition,” said Adam as he walked me around his 90-strong herd of cattle.

“I started playing tag rugby 10 years ago, aged 6, which taught me basic skills such as how to catch and throw a ball.”

Adam’s family is heavily involved with their local club team, Dromore RFC and travel to Kingspan Stadium to watch their provincial side, Ulster Rugby.

“If tackling was banned for schoolboys, it would ruin the quality and eventually kill off the sport that we love. I think it would be more dangerous as boys and girls would be introduced to tackling when they’re fully developed. This would lead to more injuries as they wouldn’t have the correct tackle technique.”

Although World Rugby is putting a huge emphasis on head injuries, only last week All Black international Ben Smith revealed that he forgot that his wife was pregnant after taking a knock in a pre-season game in February.

While schoolboy rugby doesn’t have the same resources as the professional game, coaches on the touchline are forced to rely on the word of the player involved to make a snap decision.

“If you are knocked out there is no way you should come back on. Even if you have to go for an HIA, [head injury assessment] I’m still sceptical as to whether the player should be allowed back on the field,” said Adam as he helped his brother prepare the parlour for milking later that night.

There are not many countries that play rugby better than New Zealand. The Kiwis implement a weight-grade system where children are teamed up with children of a similar size rather than age.

“I was never really scared for myself,” said Adam when he was talking about his feelings when he started playing rugby, “I was so much bigger than everyone else, so I had a few concerns that I would injure them!

“If you go in with the mindset that this could be your last match because of a serious injury, then I feel it increases the risk of getting injured and you won’t give 100% in the match.”

There are discrepancies between the size of players in the professional game which increased when the game went professional and upon the arrival of the sport’s first global superstar, Jonah Lomu. This is further accentuated at schoolboy level.

“I think [the use of the gym in schoolboy rugby] needs to be enforced better,” said Adam, “either everyone should be going to the gym at senior rugby [School years 12-14] or no one should be. Not everyone is of a similar build but with players equally developed I believe there would be less injuries.

“If you’re twice the height and weight of someone in your class then it won’t be safe for them, but then if you are playing people older you could be hurt. You might be physically developed for your year but not for those who are older.”

World Rugby has been increasing the spotlight on seatbelt tackles – tackle from behind where the arm of the defender goes over the shoulder of the attacker – as well as implementing new laws in relation to the scrum to prevent accidents such as the one I witnessed.

Despite this, there will always be controversy over the force and magnitude of tackles in rugby and in particular, youth rugby.



  1. Ivan Barnett says:

    Great reading

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