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Assessing the risks of rugby

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John Beattie | 16:00 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010

Every morning, most of us have to weigh up the risk of plugging in the kettle, crossing the road, getting on the train or into the car, eating what could be a sandwich made by Sam and Ella, and getting home again. Life is risky. I write this after reading that a pedestrian has been killed on a motorway.

How risky is rugby? Every single day of my life I wonder whether some sports are too dangerous.

I have to respect Dr Alyson Pollock's position. While I was away on holiday her publicly-funded Edinburgh University research was published into 190 rugby matches at five schools that produced 37 injuries, one of which needed an overnight stay in hospital.

A scrum between Biarritz and Glasgow WarriorsShe says that children are put at risk by people who have a duty of care when forced to play rugby at school, that concussion is under-reported and that scrums should be banned, while acknowledging that tackles are where most injuries occur.

All of which I take seriously.

And, hand on heart here, I think all sports have an element of danger. According to insurance websites the most dangerous sports seem to be mountain climbing, scuba diving, aviation (except as a paying passenger), parachuting, yachting, power boating, motor sport, snowboarding, ballooning and bungee jumping,

Add in tumbling at gymnastics, falling off a bike, getting hit in the face at hockey, doing your back in cheerleading or hitting your three iron, crashing to the ground from the back of a horse whether living or pommel, getting whacked at lacrosse, taking one to the chin boxing, slipping on the ice skating, doing your knee in on the slopes, running with the bulls in Pamplona, and you get the picture.

But can you imagine a world where we take no risks? Can you imagine a world where we wrap ourselves in cotton wool? We could sit and watch television all day. And then die young and fat.

I've said before I am not proud that my sport can break a player's neck. I still believe that scrums should pack down front rows together, second rows next and then back row.

Even as a former player I understand that rugby inhabits an area between entertainment, healthy pursuit and risky activity.

But all sports are exactly the same. All sports injure people. And you have to make the decision as to what is an acceptable risk.

I coach rugby, I love the game and I think that, on balance, it is an acceptable sport. I see the game do more good than bad in the world.

You might not agree. But that is what I think. It is not a perfect world.

To be honest, I was fairly annoyed that public money was spent on the Edinburgh University study. It should be spent on getting inactive children into sport and healthy activity instead.


  • Comment number 1.

    Ok, so the study said that children should not be taking part in the scrum with the laws as they are now. Would no recommendation have been made as how the scrum laws could be changed so to encourage more children into rugby than to discourage the ones already playing?

    If you only highlight the negatives, it can make anything damning reading.

    I will say this however, there would be absolutely no way I'd be up for sticking my neck in the front-row of the scrum as it is practiced these days (speaking as a back-rower).

  • Comment number 2.

    John, I completely agree with your article. while I am not in anyway disputing the research by Dr Pollock, it really is a small number if you compare it to other activities kids get up to such as riding a bike. I am fairly sure there are more injuries sustained by kids riding a bike than playing rugby. Common sense needs to be shown here. Like you say, are we to wrap every kid in cotton wool for the whole of their childhood? Kids need to take risks, its all part of growing up. One thing that would concern me if scrums were banned at school would be the effect it would have on adult rugby. If kids did not scrum throughout their school days rugby, how would they cope with the transition to adult rugby? Surely the sudden change to scrummaging at adulthood would result in more injuries as they have never been trained in it.

  • Comment number 3.

    The scrum was safer in our day John.

    The tinkering that the IRB have done with the scrum have made it so that the front row has to hold all the pressure from the second and back row until the ref decides to allow the engage. This means that the front rows are already off balance when they come together. Also the perceived advantage of 'winning' the engage means that both packs are racing to get in their first.
    Having the ref give the command for the engage has made this into a race and therefore put more pressure and impact on to the necks of the front rows so that when they collapse they have the full weight plus the driving strength of 5 men going straight down through their necks.

    Unfortunately this won't change anytime soon as the IRB seems to think it makes scrums safer.

  • Comment number 4.

    Remember guys... this all has to be put into 'perspective' though.

    My first thought is that whilst I agree that more kids will hurt themselves riding their bikes, it must however be acknowledged that most (if not all) kids will ride a bike at some point in their lives and most will do so for large periods daily. This is in stark contrast to the numbers who play rugby. It stands to reason that there will be more injuries due to bike riding.

    Then there is the 'intention' of the activity... rugby demands a high level of physical force being applied to others by the player. It could be argued that there is an intention to hurt your opponent... to weaken him, to defeat him. This brings the activity into line with a number of 'combat' sports... all inherently dangerous.

    Finally, there is the question of some boys (and girls I guess) HAVING to play rugby at some schools when they are either disinterested, afraid, or not physically able. The best way of keeping yourself injury free is to demonstrate commitment in everything you do... to play a game like rugby without this commitment or desire is just asking for trouble!

    As for scrums... there is no getting away from it - they are extremely dangerous in their current guise. The drama of the game would not diminish significantly if the scrums were carefully set and the shove only commenced on the ball entering the scrum. It would also make this activity far more watchable as we would see less scrums collapsing and therefore less re-setting... and re-setting... and re-setting... and re-setting...

  • Comment number 5.

    This research proves very little about the dangers of rugby, because there is no context in which to set it. How many hospital visits come from a similar number of football games at the same level? How many from cricket? I had hospital visits due to playing both of these when I was young.

    Without context the research is of little value.

  • Comment number 6.

    My father broke his neck playing, but still took me and my 2 brothers along to Minis, 2 of us still play 19 years on and I am glad he took us. I have had a few injuries and recently had knee surgery, but I would not change this for the world. I have had amazing experiences playing, making mates all over the world, winning leagues and generally having a great time. Yes it can be dangerous but most things that are fun are. Lets not turn into a world full of wimps, and please dont waste my taxes on this research again, there is enough being wasted already.

  • Comment number 7.

    As the father of a 15 year old hooker I spend a fair bit of time watching youth rugby. Any parent who says they have never worried about kids being injured is kidding themselves.
    However the comparison with recreational cycling is false. Young rugby players are playing a game they love and have trained hard for. They play with huge commitment and effort. For a proper comparison with cycling you would have to look at a sport which needs the same levels of training and effort. I would suggest competitive mountain biking.
    I suspect the injury levels there would be at least equal to youth rugby.
    As for forcing to play rugby. I hoped that had died out in the 70s. Pointless and cruel.

  • Comment number 8.

    Having read the report in detail, there is (from memory) only one recorded case of an injury in relation to the scrummage. It has to be remembered that the scrum is completely depowered up to P7 level, and then up to Under 19 level scrums can only be pushed 1.5m. I have coached from P1 upto U18, over a period of 20 odd years and, hand on heart, have yet to see an injury caused by a scrum.

    The tackle on the other hand is a problem, where two of my mosts recent player injuries relate from. While mini rugby coaches are encouraged to stop players targeting the ball and promote tackles around the waist and below, a number of clubs/schools, particularly in the private sector, actively promote a more offensive (as opposed to defensive) tackle technique.

  • Comment number 9.

    Yep, sport is risky and at times dangerous. I think we all knew that before Professor Pollock's report publication. I understand that Professor Pollock has a history of attacking rugby, in particular rugby union.

    My sister got more injuries playing school-girl hockey (including black eye, broken nose, chipped teeth, badly bruised legs and arms) than I ever did playing rugby at school and club levels. My conclusion from that would be to stop teenage girls taking the field in teams of 11 whilst wielding wooden sticks to try to hit a cricket ball.

  • Comment number 10.

    I agree 100%. The public money used was a complete waste and would be better used getting children/youths etc. involved with sport rather than be couch potatoes - oh dear I'm injured breaking a nail on the remote!
    The figures, from memory, were not 100% justified and indeed more injury happened outwith the scrum in tackle situations.
    I have no desire to see people injured in any contact sport but sadly accidents happen - I've had to live with it. Let your youngsters play their chosen sport, enjoy it and accept injury and accidents happen in life - the world is not a perfect place and putting everyone in cotton wool is no answer. Let's get realistic about life and sport in general.
    I can't even drink a coffee without reading a health and safety warning about contents 'may be hot'! Get rid of the jobsworths'

  • Comment number 11.

    We are becoming a nation wrapped in cotton wool & fast food.
    I totaly agree that the money for the study would have been better spent encouraging kids to more healthy activities. For fear of sounding like someone from my great grandparents era, when things were tough & kids too, are the kids of today just being mollycoddled too much??

  • Comment number 12.


    I believe there are some points that you and the study may have missed. From my understanding, and please correct me if I am wrong, schools rugby runs under a different system than the club mini and midi system.

    Under the club system youth players play in U14, U15, U16, U17 and U18 levels while Schools will run 1st XV, 2nd XV teams etc. For me this is a significant difference.

    While a player in club rugby is likely to be mostly playing against players within a fixed age group, under the schools system there is a chance that one player could be 3 or 4 years younger than an opponent (2nd year high school player verses 6th year player). The huge difference in physical maturity must be a key factor in the cause of injuries, especially at the tackle.

    Could a solution be scraping the schools system for the club age group system, or even go to the New Zeeland system which I think Sean Lineen spoke of where players are grouped depending on weight.

    I do understand rugby is a contact sport and there is an element of risk, I have recovered from a serious head injury from playing the sport, however I believe there are factors that can reduce the likelihood of injury. Regarding my injury, Petr Cech suffered a very similar injury which proves that maybe there is a certain level of risk in all sports.

  • Comment number 13.

    @ #9: Pollock certainly does have a reputation of not being too keen on rugby. What was allegedly said off the record to one journalist who spoke to her on this was revealing.

    Her study aside, there do need to be more stringent and regular checks on those coaching and officiating school rugby in order to pay heed that safety is paramount in the scrum. To recommend that scrums be outlawed full stop is foolish and clearly a view put someone who doesn't hold the game in any great esteem.

    BTW John - who are coaching these days?

  • Comment number 14.

    I read her report and although I can fully sympathise where she is coming from and that there is huge concern at the moment over injuries in rugby. The fact that studies in the EPL showed that at any one point of the season, around 20-25% of club squads were suffering from injuries.

    I think that we are fast encroaching on bubble wrapping everyone, it is a syndrome that seems to fast be developing. Life is life, it was never meant to be easy but yet we try and prevent lots of things from happening. They are going to happen anyway.

    In terms of rugby, you cant over govern one level, ie removal of scrums, because they (the children) will then move onto the next level and be out of their depth (that may be an overgeneralisation but I hope you see what I am saying).

    I think if you go trying to look at all the injuries, which the study was basically doing, and yes there was a fairly large scope of games where the stats were then produced from, it was basically over analysed. There are injuries and injuries, someone taking a knock to the face and having a cut on their face and maybe being taken off the pitch because of blood, is not really something to really constitute as an injury. If players were breaking legs every few games, or having ribs cracked etc etc then the concern would be much more valid. If you ran the study in the same group of games again, the injuries could go up or down as it is a massive variable. Just because one set of stats were produced, doesnt mean they would be replicated exactly again.

    It is trying to control things that are not completely within the realms of control. Things are going to happen, we are better working in that mind set and ensuring standards of coaching so that children playing the game understand what they need to do in situations that happen on the pitch.

  • Comment number 15.


    As a consultant surgeon, and old forward, I consistently see more teenage injury and disease thru alcohol abuse, drugs etc and a minimal amount from our great game, so much so that I'm struggling to recall the last significant rugby injury that came in.

    The money for tha study would have been better spent if it had been put into grass roots club rugby to encourage youngsters that a good Saturday doesn't need to include a drunken trip to A/E.

  • Comment number 16.

    I do not see the connection between alcohol and drugs and playing sport.
    Far more people drink alcohol than play Rugby,so it is meaningless to compare alcohol related damage to the body with Rugby related injuries.



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