Rugby braces itself for war of Six Nations

Knockout: Rugby’s exhilarating brutality has been likened to that of ancient Rome’s gladiators.

Do violent sports harm society? This weekend Europe’s rugby elite will do battle in the Six Nations. Some find brutal games like rugby thrilling, but others say society suffers as a result.

The writer George Orwell once wrote that sport is “war without shooting”. In few other games does that comparison seem more appropriate than rugby. Ferocious hits, piercing lines of attack, and desperate defensive manoeuvres will all be on show this Saturday as old foes Wales and Scotland kick-off the first match of the Six Nations.

And while national pride and sporting glory is on offer for the winners, the increasingly brutal nature of the sport is taking a damaging toll on its players.

Each team has already been struck by multiple injuries, and the tournament has not even begun. Statistics released by England’s Rugby Football Union show that the average severity of injuries has sharply increased in recent seasons.

Administrators and fans alike are becoming more mindful of this problem, but you can bet that as soon as the first bone crunching tackle goes in this weekend, the crowd will roar with approval.

This reaction demonstrates a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche. The founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud claimed that we all have a natural inclination towards aggression.

Indeed, throughout history humans have demonstrated a boundless talent for turning violence into entertainment. By one count more than 400,000 people were killed in Rome’s Colosseum during gladiatorial fights — all the while cheered on by baying mobs (the audience).

Of course these levels of barbarism do not compare to modern sport; however, the legacy of these events lives on. Social scientist Jennings Bryant has described sports as “sanctioned violence”.

Some argue that this is actually beneficial. With humans supposedly hardwired to act aggressively, sport offers players and spectators alike the chance to release potentially harmful urges in a controlled setting.

However, not everyone is convinced. Sports philosophers Mark Holowchak and Heather Reid claim there is “unambiguous” evidence that experience of aggression in sport causes “heightened aggression” in daily life.

So do violent sports have a place in civilised society?

Kicking off

There is much more to sports than violence, some say. The qualities of teamwork and respect that games like rugby teach prepare players for daily life in far more profound ways than any survey will notice. Of course the safety of some sports can be improved, but banning them altogether would impoverish our culture, not improve it.

Society must move on, others respond. Violent sports are the residue of a barbaric past. Not only are participants routinely subjected to life-changing injury, but this hyper-aggression seeps into our daily lives. We do not tolerate violence by citizens, why accept it from our sports stars?

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to watch violent sports?
  2. Is violence part of human nature?


  1. Think of a sport — it could be your favourite or even one that you dislike. How important is it for players to be aggressive in that sport? Do you think it could be played totally without aggression?
  2. Do some research into the role that violence has played in sport throughout history. How far back do you think this trend goes? What are the earliest sports that you can find? Do you think that violence is a natural part of sporting activity?

Some People Say...

“Rugby is a good occasion for keeping thirty bullies far from the centre of the city.”

Oscar Wilde

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Studies of injury rates in professional English rugby show that the number of serious injuries has fallen in recent seasons. However, the average recovery time of sufferers has increased. The most commonly reported injury in professional matches is concussion — something that has caused several players to retire in recent years.
What do we not know?
There is no conclusive evidence that people who play rugby are more aggressive outside the game, nor has it been proved that watching violent sports increases general levels of violence.

Word Watch

George Orwell
British writer (1903 — 1950). He is best known for his political novels Animal Farm and 1984.
Six Nations
The teams that compete are England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales. England have won the tournament the last two years.
Sharply increased
In the 2015 - 2016 Premiership season, the average recovery time after an injury was 29 days. In 2002 the average was just 16 days. This suggests that injuries are getting more severe.
More mindful
Last year scientists argued that rugby tackles should be banned in school matches. Also at elite level, new rules require players suffering from concussion to leave the field immediately.
Sigmund Freud
Austrian neurologist and psychologist (1856 — 1939).
In the book Aretism: An Ancient Sports Philosophy for the Modern Sports World.
For example, research led by Derek Kreager found that US students who play american football have a 40% greater chance of being involved in a fight than other athletes.

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