ONLY if you have ever played rugby can you really talk with sense about the difference between our sport and all the others, and only if you have ever been hit in the ribs at speed by a full-on tackle or handed one out can you even begin to explain why rugby is the best of all contact sports.

I have played or followed many contact sports for decades, including boxing and other martial arts, football – soccer, American and Australian rules – ice hockey, and the one I consider to be the most potentially dangerous of all, water polo. Put it this way, I played one game of water polo back in my twenties and never went back, because nearly drowning wasn’t fun.

So many other sports have contact in them, such as field hockey and shinty, but shin pads reduce or should reduce the impact. I enjoyed basketball because by its own rules it’s a non-contact sport, nevertheless there was plenty of ‘accidental’ contact.

Of the many sports I have played or watched, however, only rugby union and rugby league have tackling and other forms of bodily contact as integral parts of the game. Contact is not the raison d’etre of rugby, but it is hugely important. Scrums, lineouts, mauls and rucks of necessity require contact and all the very best players I have ever watched committed their bodies to the various types of contact in rugby.

To those of us who appreciate all aspects of rugby, we can revel in try-saving tackles as much as tries, and as a former prop forward, I look at scrums and nearly always know which loose-head has got the better of the opposition tight-head or vice versa. Believe me, the competition between front rows is a contact sport in itself.

Best of all, putting in a good tackle on your opposite number, knocking him back or forcing him to spill the ball, gives you a terrific feeling – you’ve bested him, you’ve done something for your team, and if carried out with correct technique on both sides there’s no lasting damage.

Downing a tackle bag just doesn’t have the same feeling as putting a human opponent on the ground, which is why I am glad for all those who play rugby in Scotland that full contact sport outdoors will soon be allowed as coronavirus restrictions are eased. It’s already happening for mini and youth rugby who are allowed full contact training, and hopefully by the end of May those age groups will have full contact external fixtures – that’s the current plan, anyway.

Adult full contact rugby is a bit longer away but unless the current progress in dealing with the pandemic is dramatically reversed, we should see all restrictions lifted by the summer. It cannot come a minute too soon, because I have no doubt that significant numbers of players in community clubs are going away from the game, never to return. The resumption of full rugby is going to be very welcome.

Yet I would be lying if I did not say that I am worried that the contact element of rugby union is becoming a genuine problem for the sport. Those who follow the professional game know that the huge hits being inflicted by players are on the increase, and that’s why I commend the sport’s authorities for all they are doing to tackle foul play and issues like concussion. I don’t think rugby is doing enough to persuade parents, for example, that their little darlings will be safe if trained properly.

Rugby simply must be made safer. I am not advocating for a second that we go down the route of American football’s body armour, but is there some way of reducing the possibility of injury for players?

If the laws stay as they are, then no, rugby will continue to have an unacceptable level of danger, not least in the tackle and ruck areas of the game.

Ground-breaking Australian research has shown that half of all rugby injuries occur in the tackle and evidence has shown that poor technique on behalf of the tackler and the recipient is the underlying cause of tackle injuries.

Rugby has already banned the spear tackle and mid-air hit, and there are more than a few people in the upper echelons of refereeing who are concerned about the full body slam or crash tackle. My fear is that tackling might be even more eroded and that really would ruin rugby.

My suggestion is this: no player at any level of the game should be allowed to take the field unless they can show that they can tackle, and be tackled, in as safe a manner as possible.

There should be a tackling proficiency test for all rugby players. The post-Covid return would be a very good opportunity to introduce it.