(This blog was first published on Better Health For All (the blog of the Faculty of Public Health) on 08 March 2015)
On 2nd March 2016, along with 70 other academics, doctors, and public health professionals, I wrote an open letter to ministers of health, education, and sport, chief medical officers, and children’s commissioners in the four nations of the UK, as well as in the Republic of Ireland. We asked them to consider the evidence and remove the collision elements of rugby within British and Irish school systems, so that children play touch and non-contact rugby.
The UK government has selected rugby union and rugby league as two of five sports it will focus on to increase the prominence of competitive sport in schools. It hopes to put 1,300 links in place between schools and rugby union organisations, and 1,000 links with rugby league, and wants to recruit one million school children to the game in England across 750 state schools.
Our concern is that rugby is a high-impact collision sport with a high rate and risk of injury. Although there is no comprehensive injury surveillance in the UK, studies show that the risk of injury for a child rugby player varies from 12% to 90% over a season of 15 games, depending on the definition used.
A systematic review puts the average risk of injury at around 28%. These injuries include fractures, ligamentous tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries, and head injuries, which can have short-term, life-long, and life-ending consequences for children
The risk of concussion for a child or adolescent rugby union player over a season is 11% – that’s the equivalent of one or two players sustaining a concussion every season in every school or club rugby team of 15 players.
Contact is where the majority of injuries occur. Research also points to the tackle being a particular cause for concern. In studies of youth rugby, tackles were found to be responsible for up to two thirds of all injuries and 87% of concussions.
Given that children are more susceptible to injuries such as concussion, the absence of injury surveillance systems and primary prevention strategies in the UK is worrying. For far too long the rugby unions have chosen to hide behind the lack of comprehensive nation wide data citing this as insufficient evidence meanwhile ignoring the evidence that has been collected over decades.
The four rugby unions of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have responded to concerns and criticisms with many initiatives, including concussion management protocols, but none have been evaluated. Furthermore, these initiatives are concerned with management of injury and not prevention, and comprehensive injury surveillance has been relatively neglected.
Editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, Fiona Godlee, has called the current state of monitoring and prevention of rugby injury in schools a “scandal” and last year a BMJ poll of doctors confirmed that 72% felt the game should be made safer.
Injury prevention requires radical changes to the laws of the game. It means removing the collision element, namely the tackle. Martin Raftery, the medical director of World Rugby, has stated that the laws of rugby may have to change to reduce concussion risk, but World Rugby is dragging its feet in dealing with the dangerous tackle.
The key problem is that it is the sport’s own governing bodies that determine the laws of the game for children. World Rugby determines the laws even at school level but its interests are in the professional game and business, not children. The link between the professional game and the children’s game should be severed – governance of the children’s game should not be determined by World Rugby and the rugby unions.
If the game is rolled out to one million school children in England, and the tackle and collision remain a part of the game, children will be left exposed to serious and catastrophic risk of injury, and on the basis of current studies the potential number of avoidable injuries could rapidly approach at least 100,000-300,000 a year.
Parents expect the state to look after their children when they are at school, and do not expect their children to be injured. However, neither parents nor children are given information on injury risks and causes in this sport.
Even more worrying is the fact that many secondary schools in the UK deliver contact rugby as a compulsory part of the physical education curriculum from age eleven – children and their parents do not have the option to opt out of a situation that risks bringing children serious harm.
Children who want to play the tackle version can always join a club, but they shouldn’t be forced to play contact rugby as part of the national curriculum when there is such a significant risk.
As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UK and Irish governments now need to take all necessary steps to inform children and to protect them from mental and physical injury and abuse, and to ensure the safety of rugby. Injury surveillance and monitoring in hospital emergency departments and by schools must be a priority so that data on sports and other activities can be collected. Until the government can show that harms and injuries have been minimised it should remove the contact from the children’s game in schools.