The safety of school rugby - a difference of opinion

Professors Eric Anderson and Allyson Pollock raise an important issue relating to the escalation of school rugby injuries and concussion in particular (Make rugby in schools non-contact, 70 health experts urge, 2 March). There has been a steady and consistent rise in rugby injury rates since the 1950s when a player could expect to be injured every 31 matches – this amounted to once every two seasons. This almost doubled to 17 in the early 1990s. In the late 2000s there was a spike in injuries when it was reported that a quarter of all elite players would require medical or hospital treatment each playing year. This appeared to follow on from the 2009 changes in the “laws” of rugby which were the result of an IRB consultative process started in 2007 whose remit was to make rugby more attractive to watch and increase its commercial potential. The upshot of the changes increased the ball in play time from 21 to 36 minutes of the 80 allotted minutes of a match. This has resulted in tackles occurring at chest and head height and an increase in “traumatic brain injuries”.

The authors raise the important issues of primary prevention and injury surveillance. The best method of assessment is a medical examination and “when in doubt, sit them out”. An independent examination is paramount. The outcome of the match should never compromise the current and future health of a player.

Primary prevention is a more pressing matter. While a non-contact “tip rugby” format has veracity it is a fundamental change to a centuries-old contact field sport. Reverting to the “laws” of the 1970s and 80s may be a simple solution for school rugby. These laws already exist. The older game was not dependent on size and had a place on the pitch for the piano player and the piano mover. As a game it was equally spectacular when played well eg 1973 Barbarians v All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park, considered by many to be the greatest game ever played, with open running competitive set pieces and no head injuries. The law changes in 2009 were designed to make the professional game more attractive to a paying public. By simply reverting to the old rules we may make this wonderful centuries old field sport safer.

Dr Conor O’Brien Consultant clinical neurophysiologist, Sports Surgery Clinic, Dublin

World Rugby and/or national rugby unions will face class action claims against them for not changing the tackle law. If World Rugby continues to sit on its hands, thousands of players will suffer from dementia 20 or 30 years after hanging up their boots.

Tackling should be below the nipple line marked on the outside of every jersey. And each side’s “backs” should have to be 10 metres behind the scrum, maul, ruck and lineout.

Doing nothing is not an option. Derek Wyatt

Ex-MP, Ex-England rugby international, London

In this debate I am struck once again by the failure to recognise the “other rugby”, ie rugby league, watched by many thousands of people both in this country and worldwide. The assumption always is that “rugby” means rugby union. I am an enthusiastic follower of both codes but feel that the more serious injuries are occasioned in the scrums, both set and loose, of the union game. In rugby league the “tackled player” is immediately freed to play the ball with no risk of further bombardment.

Both codes are tough contact sports at the higher levels but league with simple one-on-one tackling avoids the risks of the ruck,the maul and the set scrum (which in league now is simply a largely uncontested device to restart the game) where stronger youngsters, with over-enthusiasm and insufficient technique, can easily contort the bodies at the bottom of the pile.

Rugby league could also be played as touch rugby without altering the structure or flow of the game. Why not introduce rugby league at school level? It would give children the same benefits of exercise, team-bonding and fun without the risks. Specialisation in either or both codes could come later when the youngsters are stronger and have developed a passion for what is a great sport.

Ian Anderson

Richmond, Surrey

At school we were taught to tackle between the hip and the knee, with the head ideally behind the opponent. We were certainly not encouraged to tackle high. I am sure adherence to this might cut out a number of serious injuries and might even improve the game as a spectacle.

As an aside I remember playing for the colts at age 15 against the oafs of the 3rd XV who were bigger and about two years older. My left leg was broken by one such oaf with a late tackle as I kicked to touch. As I lay on the ground I was told by the rugby master, before he realised the state of my leg, to get up saying “that will teach you to kick possession away”! He had instilled in us that rugby was a game to be played predominantly with the hands – happy days! Dave Clark


The most serious injuries in boys’ rugby are those to the head. Instead of a ban on contact rugby why not require all boys to wear a scrum cap – perhaps a specially designed one to minimise the risk of concussion? Michael Franklin

Tallachddu, Powys

Compulsory school rugby was certainly unpleasant, standing around in the mud and rain. Still, it was never dangerous, provided of course that one always stayed well clear of the ball. That was where all the trouble was. Anthony Matthew


Tony Hartigan (Letters, 3 March) rightly criticises the rules of rugby which make it most unlikely that any game can be entertaining to watch. What is the point of bringing the game to a standstill and compressing all of the players (and the ball) into a postage stamp? As for the strategy of kicking the ball off the pitch…

Chris Johnson

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

I do not entirely disagree with the opponents of tackling in junior rugby but is there not another solution to this problem?

Certainly tag rugby should be played in the early years to allow children to embed the fundamental skills of giving and taking a pass. From the start of secondary school why can’t teams be selected by weight rather than age? Children grow at different rates and there is nothing more guaranteed to put young players off the game than being faced by someone considerably bigger and heavier than them.

Safe and effective tackling depends on timing and body position and should only be taught by experienced and qualified coaches. It is far easier to learn these skills if presented with an opponent of one’s own size. After 16, with skills in passing and tackling honed, then is the time to introduce young players to the senior game. Rugby is a contact game and injuries are inevitable but patient preparation of youngsters might help to keep the number of these down. Hugh Scurlock

Matlock Bath, Derbyshire

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