n any contact sport where impact and collision are an accepted feature, the use of various forms of external padding has become more common (Gerrard, 1998). Rugby union is a sport that exposes players to frequent high-impact collisions, studies investigating rugby injuries have found that players are at the highest risk of injury during the tackle compared to any other act of play (Hendricks, Jordaan & Lambert, 2012).
The tackle event in rugby places both the ball carrier and tackler at a high risk of injury at all levels of play. Due to the mentality of the sport and the desire to show controlled aggression, as an ex-player myself, I can vouch that occasionally you think in the back of your head, “I want to hurt this player, I’m going to smash him into next week”. Regardless of whether your tackling technique makes Courtney Lawes look like an amateur, hitting someone, or performing a tackle on someone with such force can still cause injury.
But what’s with all the injury talk you may ask?
You have a point, rugby can be and will remain to be a perfectly safe sport for all groups and ages to be involved with. It played a pivotal role in my adolescent development and I took more things from playing rugby than any educational institution could have offered me. But it is safe because the RFU, coaches and us as players use tools such as the tackle bag at training to reduce the frequency of injuries.
Some purists argue that using a tackle bag actually detracts from developing a proper tackle technique. The surface area of the player you are making contact with is massively increased, it can be difficult to be accurate with the point of contact and you’re limited as to where you can actually hit the ball carrier or person with the bag. These characteristics don’t transfer over too well to a real live game of rugby. As a rugby coach myself, when coaching grassroots rugby, the tackle bag should be left on the sideline unless absolutely necessary.
Tackling a stationary tackle bag is so different to a moving human being that the players simply won’t be able to build up their experience in making contact in a game situation. It’s up to you as the coach to dictate and monitor the speed and intensity of whichever tackle drill you use to ensure all players are developing proper technique at a safe and enjoyable rate. But hold on, the top teams in the world use tackle bags, so surely they can’t be all bad?
When and why?
Using a tackle bag is situation dependent and up to the coach to utilise as and when they see fit during a session. Torpedo style tackle bags can replace players used for a drill, meaning more players can be involved in the actual drill and not spectating. Tim Gabbett (2002), the top name in rugby league research, suggested that skill-based conditioning games posed the least risk of injury compared to traditional conditioning alone. Adding a skill element such as a tackle with a tackle bag could prepare your players better physically for competition, rather than drilling them up and down a pitch like the “good old days”.
Teaching proper tackle technique is imperative to allow players to be successful and run a low risk of injury (Hendricks and Lambert, 2010), however, to add to this Gerrard (1998) also explains that shoulder padding or cushioning the impact of a tackle situation reduces the risk of acromioclavicular injury (shoulder injury). So yes, sometimes tackle bags can seem an inconvenience, but the benefits of using them far outweigh the cons when it comes to injury prevention.
Physiologically, tackling places a great deal of stress on our bodies. Myoglobin and creatine kinase are markers in the blood that scientists can use to detect muscle damage. Studies have shown a positive and significant correlation between the number of tackles and both peak myoglobin concentration and creatine kinase activity, suggesting that tackling in rugby matches can result in serious structural damage to our muscles (Takarada, 2003). If this is the case for match days at the weekend, it would make sense to reduce the impact on our athletes by using softer, more comfortable tackle bags for contact practice during the week to allow them to recover.
For the sake of the longevity in the sport of our athletes, this must be considered carefully and properly implemented.