Concussions: American football versus rugby

There has been a lot of press lately about concussions and their affect on former NFL players. The recent death of Junior Seau prompted me to write this article. I do not claim to know Mr. Seau, other than being a fan of his while he played, nor am I an expert on concussions. But, I have taken classes on recognizing concussions and dealing with them, and I do know the differences between American football and rugby.

What is a concussion? Basically it is a brain bruise, when the brain hits the inside of the skull and bleeding occurs. What are the signs of a concussion as observed by coaches, staff and parents?

  • athlete appears dazed/confused
  • athlete is confused about position
  • athlete forgets instructions
  • athlete is unsure of game/opponent/ score
  • athlete moves clumsily
  • athlete answers questions slowly
  • mood change
  • inability to recall what just happened
  • can’t recall what happened after incident

Symptoms that may be reported by athlete:

  • headache or pressure in head
  • nausea/vomiting
  • dizziness/balance issues
  • sensitivity to light/noise
  • blurry vision
  • feeling groggy, foggy or in a “haze”
  • concentration or memory problems
  • confusion
  • feeling “down”

What to do if you suspect an athlete has suffered a concussion:

  • remove athlete from field
  • get evaluation from health-care professional
  • inform parents/guardian
  • keep athlete out of play/ practice until cleared by medical professional
Does rugby have the same rate of concussions as football? No.

Why not? Rule differences, equipment differences.

Football is a collision sport, while rugby is a contact sport.

The biggest reason rugby does not suffer from the same rate of concussions (or injuries for that matter) as American football is the rules. In football, the defensive player is a missile able to use his helmet or shoulder pads as a weapon. In rugby, such tackles are illegal and result in the offender being thrown out of the game. In rugby, the tackler “must make an attempt to wrap” as he tackles. In rugby, the tackler must also tackle from the armpits down. A player wearing a helmet and shoulder pads and rib protection and hip protection (and so on)… feels invincible!

Armed with the rules of the game, the technique as taught by many coaches—how many times do you hear a football coach yell “put your helmet in his numbers”?—and all that armor plating, the tackler in football is free to launch himself into the ballcarrier as hard and fast as he can, using his helmet and shoulder pads as a weapon. How many times have you seen the wide receiver coming across the middle in football get targeted by what appears to be a missile zeroing in on the head of the player?

These huge collisions are mostly nonexistent in rugby because of the the lack of padding, lack of helmet, and rules that insist the tackler make contact below the armpit of the player to be tackled and the tackler make an attempt to wrap (thus eliminating head-to-head contact and shoulder charges).

Another major contributing factor is that in football, offensive players are often looking backwards over thier shoulder for the ball while the defensive player is in front of them. There is no way for the offensive player to see the hit coming and prepare himself for the contact. In rugby, the ball must always be passed backwards, and the defense is in front of the ball and much closer. The offensive player is able to see the ball coming and simultaneously the tackler, allowing the player to prepare for contact.

I can still remember playing rugby in second year of college, when a football player came out to try rugby. We all explained that he could not and should not use his head as a weapon in rugby for the reasons above. He told us all that he was a star safety and knew how to tackle. That first practice he launched himself into a tackle attempting to “put his helmet into the numbers” of an opposing player and was promptly knocked silly! The next day when he returned—concussions were not treated as serious issues back then!—he told all of us he would never try that again.

Next time your child complains to you that Coach Persanis starts every season off with the same tackling drills and they are so slow and so boring, just remind them that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Remember, rugby may be a way of life, but it’s not life and death. Have fun, try hard and do your best.

  5 comments for “Concussions: American football versus rugby

  1. cale palmer
    April 14, 2014 at 10:16 am

    yes that is true and I do play both sports and I feel much safe in rugby then I do in football because people always think that.

  2. Averien
    May 21, 2014 at 1:21 am

    “Putting your helmet on his numbers” is pretty much the worst tackling advice possible. Leading with your shoulders, however, to hit them in the chest is the surest way to wrap someone up for the tackle. There is a reason that every *GOOD* coach teaches that, and why GOOD players are able to impact with the shoulder– it provides a natural angle for the arms to surround the ballcarrier and drive them to the ground. While it is true that football is a collision sport, suggesting it is not a tackling sport is looking at a group of sadistic, amateur fools who teach poor fundamentals and describing that as the way the game is “supposed” to be. That’s not to say those sadistic, amateur fools aren’t there, or even abundant (particularly at the high school and college levels); it’s more to say that that style of tackling is generally technically illegal (leading with the helmet), or actually safe (leading with a shoulder, as long as you are tackling at the body). And for your history lesson, those shoulder pads and kevlar pads and… and… and… and? Those came about because of a pre-existing problem– people were tackling into the ribs with their shoulders already, breaking both. The “sense of invicincibility” has nothing to do with the armor; the armor exists because of a lack of concern for personal safety, and because even doing the right thing yourself can go very wrong if the other guy shifts a foot or so out of position.

    • RugbyFree
      March 30, 2015 at 2:54 pm

      I have played both sports and I currently coach both sports in different seasons. We teach very similar tackling styles in both sports (head to the side, hit in the strike zone between chest and knees, body position, etc). A major difference that Persanis forgot to mention, is that when tackling on an angle, we teach football players to put their head in front of the tackle. Rugby players are specifically taught to put their head behind the tackle. This take the head out of the tackle almost completely. Football players are encouraged, mostly by teammates (and upper college andprofessional levels), to go for the “big hit,” This leads to shoulder charges and higher impact collisions that he mentioned. The sense of invincibility is absolutely an effect of the pads. As a rugby player, I would not run full speed into someone from across the field and try to knock him out of bounds. As a football player, I would definitely do it. Rugby players do have a sense of personal well-being, otherwise there would be players being carted off the field left and right. Watch any rugby game and you will not see this. Both sports involve tackling so both are potentialy dangerous if you don’t have good technique. But if you can find the stats for rugby concussions vs football concussions, you will see what we mean. Or look up the video of the the best defense in the NLF, Seattle Seahawks, learning how to tackle from rugby players.

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