Note: this article has been modified since publication to address an error regarding reported injury statistics originating from the Australian Sports Injury Hospitalisations 2011–12 study.
Today, it was reported that a group of doctors and health professionals have written a letter to the UK Government calling for a ban on tackling in school rugby games. This group warns of high risk of serious injury among under-18s from playing rugby and said schools should move to touch rugby and non-contact rugby which is already a popular sport in itself, with more than one million children participating worldwide.
This letter, which criticises the UK Government's drive to boost school participation in rugby, comes at a time when inactivity is reported to be responsible for more deaths than obesity and that eliminating inactivity in Europe would cut mortality rates by nearly 7.5 per cent. Whilst the safety of children is an important part of the debate, it should not overshadow the benefits of children taking part in this team sport.
At World Rugby, our number one priority is player welfare and this includes head injury prevention. As a global governing body, our responsibility is to minimise the risk in our sport and we continue to be committed to making rugby as safe and enjoyable as possible for all ages through education and promotion of correct preparation and playing techniques, prevention strategies and minimising and managing the risks associated with one of the world’s fastest-growing team sports.
We are leading the agenda in sport and our protocols, laws and educational programmes driven by our unions and leading independent experts are supporting players worldwide. Never have players, medics and management been so aware of the risks of injury and we are committed to a mission to change the culture regarding an injury where the science and societal understanding continues to evolve.
Results from the World Rugby Sportswise Survey (2015) revealed that while parents are understandably concerned about injuries, education initiatives are making an impact, with 47 per cent saying that they are more aware of injuries and concussion than five years ago. This may be due to confidence in current safeguards with 84 per centof parents believing sufficient measures are taken by schools and sports clubs to protect children against injury during sports and activity.
It is true that there is an element of risk in everything that we do in life, but there are several misperceptions about the risk of rugby. For example, 59 per centof parents surveyed think the most sports / activity injuries are caused by rugby, compared with 30 per centfor horse riding and skiing, and 28 per centfor ice hockey. Compared with other sports and activities, rugby has a relatively low injury severity rate despite being known for its physicality. In fact, research has shown that rugby is no riskier for children to play than other sports – there is no difference between reported injury rates in rugby, football, indoor football and rugby league at under-12 level. The number one cause of injury for children is unsupervised activity or playing, not sports, while sport itself only accounts for one in six head injury admissions to hospital.
We seek continuous improvement to build on the tremendous advances that have been made thus far with player welfare. Part of this effort is to look at the research and evidence on an ongoing basis and to have informed debate and discussions with a range of stakeholders from within the game and with external experts. However, the call for a ban on tackle rugby is not based on evidence nor does it add to our understanding of the important issues surrounding player welfare. This is a vocal minority that doesn’t reflect the views of millions of people who embrace the wonderful game of rugby in all of its forms, including tackle. As the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) stated within a 2015 policy statement, although removing tackling would reduce the risk of injuries to players, it would fundamentally change the sport. At World Rugby we have been encouraged that our work on player safety is being well received by the public based on the overwhelming response and support we have received from players and parents following this uninformed call for a ban.
It is crucial that we remember the positive benefits of rugby for all ages, including increasing confidence, self-esteem and self-discipline, as well as getting enjoyable physical exercise while working as part of a team. While the safety of children is an important part of the debate, it should not overshadow the other levers we have to fight obesity and a myriad of other health issues associated with physical inactivity.
World rugby is not simply an organisation; it is a global community. One which is made up of people who love the game of rugby. We are players, referees, trainers, coaches, fans and indeed millions of us are parents. As parents we believe that the safeguards are in place and will continue to improve and that the character and benefits of the game far outweigh the relatively low risk of injury.
Dr Andrew Murray, General Practitioner and a consultant in Sports and Exercise Medicine at the University of Edinburgh
"Physical inactivity is one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st Century. Stats from the Lancet show that approximately 5.3 million people die each year from physical inactivity, and that's more than 80 people each day in the UK. We need to do all we can to encourage people to take part in sport and physical activity, and also look at how we can make sport as safe as we can. Stopping children playing this form of rugby is in my view counterproductive. We should concentrate on continuing to increase safety on the pitch, introduce more systems for injury surveillance, while ensuring a clear message is heard that there is significant physical, mental, and social benefits to taking part in sport, and rugby.
"Player safety in rugby is of huge importance. World Rugby and others have made rule changes, introduced education programs and injury surveillance to help make the sport safer. And we should be crystal clear that there are massive benefits to taking part in sport and physical activity. If you go from being a couch potato to playing sport regularly, you will live on average seven years longer, be happier, and less likely to be affected by 40 conditions such type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, depression and dementia. So let's continue to see how rugby and other sports can be made safer, and encourage people to play a sport of their choice. But potentially turning our children into couch potatoes is not a cure for sports injuries."
Dr Colin Michie, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
“Until there is clear cut evidence that rugby in the young is posing a specifically greater risk than other sports, banning would be a mistake. Of course it has its dangers. But a far greater risk facing Britain’s children is that of becoming an inactive youngster, struggling to tear themselves away from their smartphones or televisions, and lacking the ability to jog the length of a rugby pitch, let alone play a whole match.”