Time to exit the scrum

Time to exit the scrum

Simon Lebus tackles a contentious sporting issue head-on, arguing we need to call full time on Rugby in schools and find a less injury-prone activity to build character and resilience in young people.

Just before Easter, Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health Research and Public Policy at Queen Mary College, University of London, along with 70 other academics signed an open letter to Ministers of health, education and sport, and chief medical officers in the UK and Ireland earlier this month asking that changes be made to the way in which rugby is played in schools. Specifically they wanted only touch and non-contact rugby to be played. The intervention comes just as the Government has selected Rugby Union and Rugby ...one or two players sustain a concussion every season in every school or club rugby team."

League as two of five sports that it plans to focus on to improve the amount of competitive sport played in English schools.

Rugby has been popular - in independent schools especially - for many years and has always involved a high degree of physical contact. Tackling, in particular, is tricky. As a schoolboy, I was taught always to tackle below the knee, but to do this well requires degrees of fearlessness and physical co-ordination that were beyond me, with the consequence that I, like many others in this situation, quite often ended up getting a face full of somebody else’s football boot, something I usually sought to avoid by fabricating illness The risk of injury in rugby-playing children is 28%"

so that I could sit out of games. I also have two sons who played rugby at school, both of whom sustained various injuries as a result. It therefore comes as no great surprise, according to an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, to learn that the average risk of injury in rugby-playing children and adolescents under 21 years is around 28%. These injuries include torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders and head and spine injuries; equally remarkable is that the risk of concussion for a child or adolescent Rugby Union player over a season is 11%, the equivalent of one or two players sustaining a concussion every season in every school or club rugby team.

Professor Allyson Pollock, who organised the letter, first began to take an interest in this over a decade ago when her son was badly injured in a school rugby game. Having compiled compelling and extensive data about injuries over the following years, she has had little success in interesting the various official bodies responsible for regulating the game in her analysis. This might be connected to the fact that enthusiasm for rugby as a form of ‘hard knocks education’ in ‘the school of life’ is often used as a badge to display its These injuries include torn ligaments, dislocated shoulders, dislocated shoulders and head and spine injuries."

wearer’s resistance to politically correct molly-coddling and wrapping children in cotton wool. It does seem odd, however, that in an era when many recreational activities (such as playing conkers) are banned in schools for health and safety reasons, a game like rugby, which many doctors feel needs to be made safer, and where there is strong evidence of physical hazard that is arguably disproportionate to any educational benefit, continues to flourish with active official promotion.

Curiously, this echoes a debate in the United States about American football, the subject of the recent film ‘Concussion’, in which Will Smith plays Dr Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who struggled to prove the significance of research he had carried out showing ...repeated head traumas sustained by NFL players resulted in degenerative mental illness."

that repeated head traumas sustained by NFL players in the course of their sporting careers resulted in degenerative mental illness in later life. Dr Omalu met extraordinary resistance from the NFL, and indeed the US government, who refused to accept let alone act on the medical research presented to them.

There is rightly much debate about how education contributes to character development and the role of the non-taught curriculum in developing important social and psychological characteristics, such as resilience, self-confidence and the ability to operate effectively as part of a team. The game of Rugby originated at Rugby School in the mid 19th century, where the public school tradition of education for character started. At that time the average adult male height was around 165 cm. It has since increased by around 10cm and young people are also heavier as a result of nutritional improvements and lifestyle changes. Just as height has increased, so also the concept of character education has changed. Surely it is now time for the rules of Rugby to do the same?

Simon Lebus
Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment