Rugby – Football With No Pads?

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For rugby fans living in Canada, there is a particular observation which one becomes very accustomed to hearing.

“Rugby is crazy! It’s like football with no pads!”

Certainly, to the untrained eye it is easy to muddle up rugby with football; both are played on grass fields (artificial or natural) which are almost the same size; both are contested by roughly two dozen players; and in both the objective is to advance a vaguely egg-shaped ball across the opponent’s goal line.

The resemblance which most confounds the average North American sports fan, however, is the tackling. There’s plenty of it in both games, so why in the world don’t rugby players wear more protective equipment? Not only does this question make sense on a primal level, but is is even more valid given what we know about recurring sports injuries, especially concussions.

The simple answer is that the two sports formed their own distinct values after branching off from a common evolutionary tree in the late 1800’s. The rules of American football developed in such a way that the moving the ball straight ahead at all costs became the overriding objective, and it was in this climate that tackling by almost any means came to be acceptable. Over the years, new strategies led to increasing specialization of the defensive positions, and players were coached to use their arms and shoulders to bring down opponents—even unsuspecting ones.

Rugby, meanwhile, remained a game with much sideline-to-sideline flow, and has stayed true these roots right up to the modern day. Like football, the aim is still to advance a ball down the length of a field, but with no play clock or “downs” rule the battle for every scrap of territory is less frenzied. Of course, every player on a rugby team is expected to make—or at least be involved in—dozens of tackles each game. But because field position is considered in strategically broader strokes, there is less onus on rugby players to risk life and limb to defend half a yard of ground. In other words, the blunt force required of football players is of less importance on a rugby pitch.

All of which brings us back to the question of padding. Though it is not unusual nowadays to see scrum caps, mouth guards, or even the occasional small shoulder pads on rugby players, the effectiveness of these items when it comes to preventing serious injuries is highly debatable. In football, on the other hand, much time and effort has been spent on developing ever more protective gear, including helmets, shoulder pads, “flak jackets” (for protecting the torso) and even thigh pads.

It is here we can see the key difference between rugby and American football, at least when it comes to the padding debate. There is school of thought suggesting that football injuries are on the rise precisely because of all the protective equipment the sport utilizes. Often compared with gladiators in “suits of armour”, modern football players learn to feel invincible (so the argument runs) creating a collective environment in which they are more likely to gamble with their bodies.

The suggestion seems reasonable. Take the history of football helmets, for example; originally a crude protective measure which came into fashion in the 1920’s, leather helmets were meant only to protect the head. Yet over the years these simple devices evolved to absorb more impact, eventually morphing into the hard-plastic shape we recognize today. Bars across the face were added and became increasingly elaborate, and nowadays a technological advance like the integration of Kevlar is only the latest testament to football’s mentality of escalation.

The point is, helmets in football eventually went well beyond their original protective purpose. They were assimilated into an aggressive, straight-line culture, and paved the way for players to use their heads as a tackling tool. If the introduction of hard-plastic helmets was enough to convince so football players to use their head like the tip of a missile, then it is is reasonable to deduce that the other improvements to other equipment technology—such as enormous, hard-capped shoulder pads—would only contribute to an environment of recklessness.

This stands in stark contrast to rugby, where tackles continue to be a maneuver of “wrapping up” an opponent with the arms. Tackling in rugby is, by necessity, an act of self-preservation for both ball carrier and defender, and only inexperienced players put their head in harm’s way. This is a fundamental skill drilled into rugby players from a young age. In addition, shoulder hits are illegal and frowned-upon precisely because of the danger they pose.

As we can see, there are two very different mentalities which underpin the values of American football and rugby. One thing they have in common, however, is that everyone involved should be thankful that the old sporting ideals of “toughness” have begun to wither under glare of modern ideals. In particular, a greater understanding of concussions and their long-term effects means there is now less pressure to play through head injuries. Rugby was somewhat late to this party thanks to a long tradition of amateurism (which survived right up to the middle of the 1990s), but has still come a long way.

Of course, there is still work to be done. Anyone who has seen World Rugby’s concussion protocol in action during a test match knows that it is a farce; players who go down with a head knock are often given ten minutes in the quiet room, notoriously easy-to-cheat tests, and a wink and a nod from the medical staff before returning to game action.

As the sporting world continues to move in a more progressive direction, then, might more padding become the norm in rugby? The answer is almost certainly no, and for better or worse, rugby fans wouldn’t have it any other way—after all, many gnash their teeth over the fluctuating scrum laws, or still long for the days of “old-fashioned” rucking.

Fortunately, there is a strong argument that as long as players are schooled properly in the art of tackling, and avoid the excessive “gym-monkey” bulking up which was recently denounced by Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll—rugby should continue to be at least as safe as football for all who play.

So while rugby players may often live up to their “crazy” reputations, just remember that the pads have nothing to do with it.

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