The way in which particular injuries are governed and dealt with in professional rugby has very much come to the forefront of the game in recent times, but should the RFU be looking at the grass-roots level as the basis for implementing guidelines and regulations in order to ensure the safety of children?
If we look at the injury statistics of rugby compared to that of football, the rate injuries occur is almost three times as much and of these injuries over 50% happen during the tackle, a common occurrence during a game of rugby. This statistic is understandably daunting for any parent wanting to introduce their son/daughter to rugby at a young age, particularly when collisions have been likened to that of a 20mph car crash. The statistics do, however, particularly from my rugby playing experiences from the age of 7 depict an environment that is a lot more dangerous than the reality of schoolboy rugby.
I won’t pretend that rugby isn’t a dangerous sport and that I didn’t see and sustain a number of nasty looking injuries, but that is just part and parcel of a sport that is highly competitive and fast-paced. I do believe, however, that changes can and should be made to look out for children who are under/ overdeveloped playing in their age group. Governing bodies in England should take a leaf out of New Zealand Rugby’s book in terms of the way they group young children depending on their weight category. This extensive protocol ensures that if a player is either underdeveloped or overdeveloped, they are matched with players that reflect their physiological make up. These categories greatly reduce the likelihood of them being injured by or injuring others around them. It’s a simple concept but could have a profound impact on how many injuries occur throughout school boy rugby in England.
In 2014 a dispute that took place between Will Greenwood and the Professor of Public Health Allyson Pollock, regarding the dangers of school boy rugby presented two arguments that, in my opinion, illustrated both ends of the spectrum in addressing its dangers. These arguments, however, failed to actually determine a suitable solution; it was either let them continue in the same direction we’re heading in, or scrutinise and regulate the game so extensively that it is no longer the sport we love. They both raised interesting ideas, with Will Greenwood speaking of how ‘life is about taking knocks, getting back off the floor, and going again,’ and Allyson Pollock maintaining that ‘rugby is becoming a byword for brutality’, thoughts that both contain elements of validity, but the best solution has to be to find a middle ground.
This year, the issues surrounding injuries in school boy rugby are still entirely prevalent. The Government has initialised a scheme to increase participation in rugby throughout the schools in England and this has been met by opposition from around 70 doctors and health professionals who have questioned its validity and safety. In an open letter highlighting the risks of serious injury in Under 18s playing rugby, issued to ministers, chief medical officers and children’s commissioners, they have attempted to emphasise these dangers claiming that children are being exposed to serious and catastrophic risk of injury.
I believe however, there is a solution of sorts, a compromise. The work that Rugbytots is doing for English school boy rugby in educating them about the game and bettering their skills is providing a base on which the safety of younger children partaking in the sport would not only increase, but it would encourage parents to feel more assured about their child’s safety and consequently be more open to signing them up to the local rugby club. This Government initiative for greater participation will no doubt have a knock on effect in regards to the number of injuries likely to be sustained at the schoolboy level but with regulations and guidance it can all be managed in a professional and safe manner.
I believe there is no other sport out there that will expose young generations to the kind of comradery and togetherness that you find in a rugby team, as well as developing levels of discipline and aspiration that are hard to come across at such a young age. Changes need to occur in the game to enhance the safety of schoolboy rugby, but drastic suggestions such as playing non-contact alternatives would remove integral elements from the sport and cannot be an option. Education about potential injuries combined with a regulated process of integrating contact is where progress will stem from; it is now a matter of finding a middle ground to ensure all parties are equally satisfied and where the safety of younger generations takes precedence.