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Concerns over UK government plans to increase participation in school rugby

April 22, 2015

Their article just published in the BMJ argues the government “should ensure the safety and effectiveness of school sports” and call for injury surveillance and prevention programmes to be established to help reduce injury rates.

The high rates of injury in rugby union and rugby league for professional and amateur players, including children, are well established and cause for medical concern. For example, around 12 per cent of child and adolescent rugby players sustain an injury severe enough to require at least seven days’ absence from playing in a season.

Yet comprehensive injury surveillance systems that capture injuries occurring on the field and in training - across professional and amateur, adult and child, rugby union or rugby league - are lacking in every country except New Zealand.

Studies have found most rugby injuries occur during the tackle but that scrums are the most dangerous phase of play. Recent rule changes, such as the introduction of non-contested scrums, may have reduced the number of permanently disabling spinal injuries, but their effectiveness has yet to be properly evaluated, the researchers say. However, insufficient attention has been paid to the tackle as the major cause of injury in this collision sport.

Allyson and her team point to programmes such as RugbySmart in New Zealand and BokSmart in South Africa which appear to have had some success in reducing the number of catastrophic injuries through education and behavioural change.

In England, a new collaboration between the Rugby Football Union and the University of Bath aims to collect injury data from participating schools for under 15s, under 16s and under 18s and to develop new warm-up and training programmes.

However, the UK government has selected rugby union and rugby league among the five sports it will focus on to increase the prominence of competitive sport in schools in England, say the authors. The government hopes to put 1,300 links in place between schools and rugby union organizations and a further 1,000 with rugby league.

Professor Allyson Pollock, lead for C4TS's Public Health and Policy research core, comments: “With the exception of New Zealand, rugby injury surveillance and prevention programmes established since the late 2000s have not been fully evaluated and injury rates are high.  Furthermore, most rugby injury surveillance and prevention programmes have not completed all steps of Van Mechelen’s injury prevention model.

“In the UK the effectiveness of prevention programmes, and recent changes to the laws of the game, are unknown. Given that children are more susceptible to injuries such as concussion and often take longer to fully recover, the government’s plan is worrying.”

“Not enough is being done by the government to put in place injury monitoring and prevention strategies. Only by collecting injury data and by providing feedback to individuals and organisation working on safety initiatives will the short and long term impact of injury prevention programmes, whether for rugby or any other sport, be known.”

In addition, many countries, including the UK, have inadequate child injury surveillance systems in general. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, governments have a duty to protect children from risks of injury. The UK government as a signatory to the Convention should not only ensure the safety and effectiveness of sports, but also that injury surveillance and prevention strategies are established before proceeding with its plans to target funding and increase participation in a high risk collision sport such as rugby.

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