Rugby’s governing bodies have rejected calls from academics to remove tackling and the scrum from the school level of the game, with World Rugby describing the advice as “extreme and alarmist”.
Allyson Pollock and Graham Kirkwood from the Institute of Health at Newcastle University have argued that most injuries in youth rugby occur due to the collision element of the game.
Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), they said that ministers should “put the interests of the child before those of corporate professional rugby unions”.
World Rugby, who oversee the global game, have reacted by issuing a strongly-worded statement disputing Pollock’s position.
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The statement read: “World Rugby and its member unions take player safety and welfare very seriously and proactively pursue an evidence-based approach to reduce the risk of injury at all levels.
“The continual claims made by Professor Pollock are not based on like-for-like injury statistics and her extreme and alarmist conclusions are simply not supported by the data.
“For example, it is well documented that, for most sports, injury rates increase with age and yet the research quoted mixes 9-12 with 18-20 age groups.
“Contrary to Pollock’s opinion, the systematic published studies where injury has been properly defined and monitored suggest the risk for pre-teens is not unacceptably high compared to other popular sports.
“Of course, as with all sports there is some risk of injury associated with rugby and governing bodies have a responsibility to mitigate that risk as far as possible.
“That is why rugby for young people at schools or clubs exists in different forms, both contact and non-contact, and significant work has been undertaken over a number of years to develop a structured progression.”
Pollock and her colleagues believe that removing collisions from schools rugby is likely to “reduce and mitigate the risk of injury” in pupils.
They argue that a history of concussion is associated with the “lowering of a person’s life chances” across a number of measures, including low educational achievement and premature death.
But the Rugby Football Union supports World Rugby’s position.
RFU chairman Andy Cosslett insists the risks are outweighed by the benefits to be gained from the sport and also disputes Pollock’s data on safety.
Cosslet said: “Mini and junior sections at clubs are packed to the gunnels on a Sunday morning now because they are making a decision that, even though there is a bit of risk involved in this game, perhaps a little bit more than other games, the benefits for the child and the benefits and values the the game stands for are worth buying into.
“Coaching of technique is critical to doing something safely, and rugby is no different.
“Learning to tackle early is all about technique and the stats are very clear – if you learn to tackle as a real youngster, the chances are you will get less injuries.”