Mention rugby to someone who is not overly familiar with the sport and it is likely they will cringe with the thought of the huge collisions that occur. The media and indeed those involved with the sport, players and volunteers like to over emphasize the contact area. The gladiatorial beauty of muscle, sinew and bone against muscle, sinew and bone, no protection just human endeavour has led to an overemphasis on a growing collision culture.
Collision Culture Overshadows Rugby Union
Consider the number of YouTube videos and tournament promos that are heavily dominated by bone crunching hits. As a rugby family it is worn as a ‘badge of honour’ to thunder over or through an opposing player to then pick them up, shake their hand and have a beer post-match. That level of ‘impact’ is what makes rugby special around the globe but some might ask “is it endangering the future of the game?” As collision injuries and concussion-related injuries come to forefront of the sport, a second question arises “is rugby in danger of alienating itself from a youth already bombarded with so many options in terms of sports and hobbies to pursue?”
Let us begin with the structure. The current World Rugby Law book states:
The object of the game is that two teams; each of fifteen players, observing fair play, according to the Laws and in a sporting spirit, should by carrying, passing, kicking and grounding the ball, score as many points as possible.
Nowhere in that description does it mention that the key aim of the game is to put in the biggest hit possible, to hit a ruck like a steam train or bludgeon your opponent into submission.
The key word ‘missing’ in all the rugby rhetoric is evasion. Rugby is a sport (as shown above) where the aim is to score as many points as possible. It is not possible to do this when constantly looking for contact against an opponent who has also been coached [or taught] that contact is king. It, therefore, seems odd that all the focus in rugby is on contact and winning that physical battle.
As a coach myself, it is evident across the board from minis (under-age beginners) through junior rugby all the way to senior rugby, that contact is taught more often than not to the detriment of evasion. Why teach a child to run into contact rather than teach them to look for space? It is because of the emphasis on contact that is taking away the ability of players to score tries and ultimately, make the spectacle more enjoyable from a fan’s perspective.
Contact certainly has a proud place in rugby that should be maintained, the physical contests are part of what makes rugby stand apart from the myriad of other sports. The contest at the ruck, scrum, lineout and general play are all aspects that deserve to have their ‘praises sung loud and proud’ but in today’s society and in an environment in which concerns over player welfare are increasing ‘it is time for them to take a backseat?’.
As an example, there are more than enough parents around the world who still champion the physicality of rugby and are happy to let their children partake but there are a significant number out there now who would stop their child playing. A growing number of instances, and a growing vocal group too. Again it is related to this emphasis on contact that causes issues to be flagged, and yes, there are injuries true but these are on a par with other childhood sports. Even with that, rugby has earned itself a negative stigma that continues to follow it.
So how to correct this thinking? It could be as simple as promoting evasion and scoring tries rather than celebrating the hits, rugby could take a significant step forward to reassure those unsure on the sport.
From personal experience, coaching in the United States, the influence of rugby coaches and the fans love of the big hits was evident to see. A fellow coach started a session with a group of American youths; who had had very little exposure to rugby, by showing them an a-typical YouTube compilation of the biggest hits in rugby, many of which were ‘illegal’ under the Laws of the game. The idea being to get them pumped-up for a physically natured sport and it was motivational for those youths who already played American Football and who wanted more of that contact. For the other 75% of the children in the room however, it deterred them from the sport. Immediately they had reservations, imagining that this was what was about to happen to them.
Instead, the session would have been more productive long-term if it was based on touch-rugby principals reinforced by the fundamentals of the game. Admittedly, this is an isolated personal expression but one can imagine the scene being repeated whenever a youngster considers getting involved in rugby–access to the internet means that they will search for ‘rugby’ videos and to be confronted by this [hard hits] rather than say the best tries of the game, is worrying for many. The compilations of tries are certainly out there, but tend to be less prevalent than those of the big hit variety.
Recently out of the United Kingdom, a number of Doctors began a petition to remove tackling from the sport which is quite clearly ‘nonsensical’ to anyone involved. It did, however, again put rugby in a negative spotlight. All those parents out there will have been influenced by the debate alone and no matter that the positives to playing far outweigh the negatives, those paternal responses will still resonate. The consequence will now be a constant battle for the rugby community as it is continually brought into question just ‘how safe it is for children’ to partake.
From that, World Rugby and the national rugby unions around the globe are doing the best that they can to reassure everyone that they are ‘doing as much as possible to promote player welfare’. New concussion guidelines and return-to-play procedures which have been ‘bought into’ by administrators and coaches alike, are recognizing the limitations of what had been done before. This increased level of protection is fantastic to see from both a players and a coaches perspective but it will be ‘all for nothing’ if the culture of contact does not change.
The overriding image of rugby is all well-and-good for those that are already initiated but, for the sport to grow, it must look outside the traditional support base. Indeed there is an air of change due to many current rugby fans becoming nostalgic for ‘the old days’ when rugby fields were graced by the flair and poise of the like of J.P.R Williams, Jeremy Guscott or Christian Cullen. Contrast this to the current poster boys of running rugby, Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea or George North. It seems today, it is ‘Power over poise, Collision over grace’.
Rugby has a bright future and it’s mass appeal continues to grow around the world but to become truly global, maybe those involved need to reflect on how it appears to outsiders. Long live the contests but lets reduce the collisions.