Is it necessary to prohibit U18 rugby? No, but try explaining that to parents of a child who has suffered a concussion. | Sean Ingle
The tale starts with a young boy, disoriented and unsure, lying on a rugby field in Sussex last month. He experiences symptoms of a concussion, misses school days, and his parent, who is a fan of rugby, realizes the severity of the situation while administering first aid to the team. “It’s only when you hold the head of someone else’s child, who can’t stand on their own, that you truly understand the potential danger of this sport.”
As a result of these hazards, certain researchers are proposing that rugby be prohibited in schools and clubs for individuals under the age of 18 due to the fact that it can be considered a type of mistreatment towards children. Their stance, which was reported in the Times on Friday, is that the potential for brain injuries in high-impact sports, such as rugby and boxing, goes against laws against child abuse. Additionally, children and their parents are unable to provide informed consent as they may not fully comprehend the long-term consequences.
Rugby is once again facing a precarious balancing act of promoting its physical and mental benefits while also addressing concerns about player safety.
Are the balances always accurate? This is the question being raised by some parents in Sussex, particularly after a second player from the same game was suspected of having a concussion. Was this just bad luck? Definitely. However, those on the sidelines also pointed out another worry.
After the Covid pandemic, the Rugby Football Union in England resumed rugby union matches and allowed for the merging of age groups. This was specifically implemented for under-14 players to participate in under-13 fixtures, in order to maintain teams with smaller numbers and prevent them from discontinuing their participation in rugby. During this particular match, the opposing team had several players from the age group above.
The RFU’s choice was justifiable. The amount of players participating in amateur rugby has decreased. Clubs were facing difficulties in forming new teams. According to the RFU, the sport brings about significant advantages such as improving “confidence, self-esteem, self-discipline, and character”. While it may sound like a pitch from a 1920s boarding school, it remains a fact.
The potential downside is that boys who are 12 years old, many of whom have not yet gone through puberty, are competing against 14-year-olds who have higher levels of testosterone and other hormones that make them taller, stronger, heavier, and faster – and potentially more dangerous. According to a sports scientist, there is evidence that factors such as speed, power, strength, size, and momentum in tackles increase the risk of injury, which suggests that widening the age bracket could also increase this risk. However, this does not mean that it should not be done. Rather, it is important to closely monitor and understand the potential risks in both quantitative and qualitative ways.
The RFU’s decision to merge age groups in 2020 was not based on data at the time. Prior to this season, youth club rugby was not part of the RFU’s injury monitoring efforts, which primarily covered adults and select schools.
Fortunately, things are changing in this regard. However, there is still insufficient information about the effects of having players under the age of 13 and 14 playing together. Have there been more injuries? Without a starting point, we cannot determine this. When I raised this concern with the RFU, they stated that they have a strict evaluation and authorization procedure outlined in our regulations to maintain a balance between the safety of players and their retention. These regulations include a limit on the number of players from the older age group, and it emphasizes that coaches must prioritize the safety and enjoyment of players and collaborate to minimize mismatches.
Can this effectively address worries from parents? Many 14-year-olds may be solely focused on outmaneuvering opponents, regardless of their age. One potential solution is to adopt the approach of Dr. Sean Cumming, who advocates for bio-banding in youth sports, where players are grouped based on their physical maturity rather than their chronological age. Some other leagues, like New Zealand, use weight as a factor for grouping players.
Unfortunately, these measures will not completely resolve the safety concern. Just recently, I received a letter from Ceri Shaw, whose husband Chris passed away last year. Chris had been an avid rugby player for over 30 years, and after his death, Ceri generously donated his brain to Prof Willie Stewart at the University of Glasgow. The results showed signs of CTE, a progressive brain disorder associated with head injuries.
Ceri wants to know why children in England start playing contact rugby at the age of 9 instead of waiting until they are 16, especially since there is evidence that rugby players with longer careers are more likely to develop a certain condition. She mentions how her late husband Chris was a huge fan of rugby and she still wants her sons to play and appreciate the game. However, she also questions the potential risks to their brain health and wonders why this is being overlooked. Further research needs to be conducted in order to fully understand the implications and make informed decisions.
Rugby experts suggest that teaching safe tackling techniques to nine-year-olds is safer than waiting until they are 15 or 16, as they will be faster and stronger at that age. They also reference a study by World Rugby in Otago which concluded that under-13 rugby is less risky than playing at higher age levels or as adults. However, this may be little comfort to the parents of the young boys in Sussex who recently suffered suspected concussions.
Despite this, I am still hesitant about the notion of prohibiting rugby for individuals under the age of 18. The advantages of the sport outweigh any potential downfalls, especially in light of the current issue of obesity and lack of physical activity, which poses its own health risks. If we ban rugby, where do we draw the line? However, with each passing year, our understanding of the dangers of head impacts continues to progress and I believe that rugby will have to adapt accordingly.