LONDON (Reuters) - Doctors, academics and health experts have called for tackling to be banned in rugby played in schools in Britain and Ireland to reduce the risk of children suffering serious injuries but have faced a backlash from the game’s administrators.
In an open letter to government ministers and chief medical officers, 73 signatories on Wednesday expressed concern about government plans to increase participation in rugby in English schools.
“The majority of all injuries occur during contact or collision, such as the tackle and the scrum,” the letter stated, calling for a switch to touch and non-contact versions of the game.
“These injuries, which include fractures, ligamentous tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries and head injuries ,can have short-term, life-long and life-ending consequences for children.”
England hosted last year’s Rugby World Cup and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) launched an ‘All Schools’ programme in 2012 aimed at increasing the number of state secondary schools playing rugby.
The RFU said it took safety “extremely seriously” and pointed also to what it saw as substantial physical and social benefits for youngsters, with the game increasing their confidence, self-discipline and teamwork.
The RFU has recently changed the rules of junior rugby, introducing a graduated exposure to its physical aspects.
Until the under-nine age group, children play only tag, after which tackling is introduced. The following year they are involved in rucking, while contested scrums, lineouts and kicking come in for older age groups.
The sport’s world governing body, World Rugby, issued a statement saying: “Our number one priority is player welfare... 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.
“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.”
Fans and ex-players say rugby would be nothing without the physical element. Retired England hooker and TV pundit Brian Moore said on twitter that banning contact rugby until adulthood “effectively precludes full rugby after; it’s more dangerous to start unskilled, powerful adults tackling.”
Professor Allyson Pollock, of Queen Mary University of London, told the BBC that evidence collected over 12 years showed players up to the age of 18 or 19 had a 28 percent chance of getting injured over a 15-match season.
That meant 300,000 extra injuries a year if a million children were playing every year with a similar risk of injury.
“The U.N. convention on the rights of the child is really very specific on the role that governments and all authorities and parents actually have,” she told Sky Sports television.
“They must take all the necessary steps to inform children, to protect them and to prevent them from suffering mental injury and physical injury and abuse. So it’s really very important that we put the child at the centre of the game.”
World Rugby, however, countered those claims, saying that “compared with other sports and activities, rugby has a relatively low injury rate despite being known for the physicality of the game.
“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.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, additional reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris