LONDON (Reuters) - Leading rugby officials have called for urgent action to try to halt the rising tide of injuries, particularly concussion, as rule changes to make the professional game faster and more open have led to an increase in collisions.
The 2016-2017 Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project (PRISP) showed injuries in the Premiership and among England internationals have risen on last season, and stand slightly above the average since the annual survey began in 2002.
Changes to the game’s laws and their interpretation, designed to speed up the game have meant a rise in the number of tackles in a match, with more of them being high-speed “hits” that cause many of the injuries described in the report.
The concussion debate came into sharper focus after Wales back George North got up after appearing to have been knocked unconscious, before being knocked out again in a Six Nations match in 2015.
“Put simply, we need to try to avoid head-to-head, head-to-knee and head-to-hip contact and make the tackle target between waist and the line of the shoulders,” said Simon Kemp, the RFU Medical Services Director.
However Kemp, who has led efforts to better understand and treat concussion for many years, added: “If you design a law to make the game more free-flowing you have to ensure it doesn’t introduce other risks.”
Around 47 percent of all match injuries the report covered in the 2016/17 season were a result of a tackle - with an almost even split between tackler and ball carrier, the PRISP report showed.
Concussion accounted for 43 percent of all injuries to tacklers, compared to 19 percent for the ball carrier. Overall, concussion accounted for 22 percent of all match injuries.
With the publication of Monday’s report the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Premiership Rugby (PRL) and the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) launched the Professional Game Action Plan on Player Injuries.
It calls for a range of injury prevention initiatives by game administrators, referees, coaches, club, players and medical staff, a review of current laws and their application and more research into “player load”.
Several professional players, including England duo Billy Vunipola and Ben Youngs, have raised the idea of strike action on player welfare grounds if they are forced into a longer playing season to accommodate international games. Premiership officials say their plan would not increase game time.
“Clearly the PRISP report has identified some significant challenges for us in relation to injury and player welfare,” said Phil Winstanley, Rugby Director at Premiership Rugby.
Monday’s report said the incidence of training injuries had gone back up, with players on average unable to play for 33 days following an injury, the highest recorded level. In total, 36 percent of all injuries were sustained in training.
The report also said, for the first time, that the incidence of match injuries on artificial turf was significantly higher than on grass, though officials said more data was needed to understand whether this was an anomaly.
Tackle height is a major concern and a key aspect of the plan is liaison with World Rugby to review laws and their application. However, officials stressed that any changes would need careful consideration to ensure they did not swap the risk of one impact injury for another.
Kemp said studies showed there had been a four-fold increase in the recognition of concussive events in the professional game in England since 2012, and an eight-fold drop in the number of concussed players continuing to play after their head injury.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Jon Boyle.Jon Boyle