Here we go again! The touchy subject of young people playing rugby and the associated risks has once again reared its controversial head in the news. In the red corner are the raging rugby aficionados, angry about the demonisation of their long practiced sport. In the blue corner are section of the medical community who are either custodians of our young people's safety or out of touch liberals with no concept of the real world. Delete as you see appropriate.
I am an academic, although not a doctor, and have a passing interest in rugby league although my support of Salford has somewhat lapsed over recent years. It may irritate many, but I have significant concerns about rugby as a sport but I do not want to see rugby league consigned to history. It is the game the North of England gave to the world.
Most sport comes with risk, that to some is part of the appeal. Golf is perhaps a example where the risks are negligible but for most sports risk is inherent. For footballers, the more serious injuries tend to be to the lower limb and can lead to premature retirement as worse case scenario. However for a sport such as boxing, the affects of blows suffered can be both short and long term. An association between boxing and developing dementia like symptoms later in life is generally accepted. For players of other contact sports, there still exists some controversy over the consequences of multiple, lower level impacts over the course of a career. Safe to say, blows to head are something to be avoided. It is with the greatest of sadness that I also have to acknowledge the deaths of two young people playing rugby league over recent times, both are likely to be as a result of acute head injury.
However, one further aspect of rugby that should not be ignored is spinal injury. Whilst incidence of spinal injury appear to be coming down, rugby is a sport that provides considerable opportunity for players to spend the rest of their lives in a wheelchair. This is a major difference between sports such as football and rugby. For footballers, the worse that tends to happen is they have to retire and suffer some degree of mobility difficulties but for rugby players; a life unable to move arms or legs can, unfortunately occur.
Banning tackling and scrums in school's rugby would have an affect. However the potential consequence of that is that players do not learn to tackle and scrummage correctly until they are older where the forces involved are much stronger, which may lead to a counterproductive increase in head and spinal injuries. Another issue I have previously highlighted is size differential between players of the same age. Some teenagers are considerably bigger and stronger than others within the same age bracket but yet play on the same field.
Watching top level rugby of either code now shows that the impacts are now considerably stronger and the relative physiques of the players much bigger than in previous generations. The emphasis in the modern game appears to be more on fitness and conditioning rather than skill. If that is replicated at junior level then concern has to exist that rugby is getting more dangerous when other sports are getting safer.
My suggestion on this is very simple. I would take rugby out of schools and I would treat it as I would boxing. Make rugby union and rugby league club games only and transfer funding and resources away from the schools and into these clubs. The first benefit of this is that the sport will be played by those who want to rather than being forced to do so. The second benefit is that the coaching should be better. The third benefit is that the amount of rugby our young people play will be reduced as they would not play for their school side.
The thought of ending school's rugby will no doubt cause consternation to schools with a long association with the sport but I am of the view that times do have to change. Rugby league largely survived thanks to amateur clubs and there is no reason that either code need cease to exist if their amateur clubs are appropriately supported.
The shadow that will now haunt rugby is that parents and guardians who previously would not have thought twice about letting their child play the sport are going to become more concerned and rugby might see its ability to attract new players compromised. Those with strong affections for rugby will point to a defence of fitness but, unfortunately, rugby is one of many ways of keeping fit and most of the others do not involve being repeatedly hit!
The rugby safety arguments will run and run. It is the opinion of this blogger that the sport provides considerable risk of serious injury and it is vital that those who chose to participate know those risks. By banning tackling and scrummaging in schools, only part of the problem is solved. There will be a reduction in injuries certainly but the long term development of players may be compromised in that they do not learn skills vital for full contact rugby. By taking rugby out of schools and into clubs, a happy (ish) medium can be maintained between those who love the sport and those who have significant concerns over safety.