In an open letter to politicians in 2016, 70 doctors and academics called for a ban on tackling in children’s rugby. This was dismissed by many in the game as an overreaction, but is symptomatic of a sporting culture increasingly geared towards size and physicality. Regardless of the protestations of old timers, who declare ‘it was just the same in my day’ and ‘the games gone soft,’ rugby has to recognise the trajectory the sport is on. As a result of this increased physicality, insurance is more necessary than ever; click here for more details.
The statistics do not lie. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine reported that, in 1955, the mean player body mass at international level was 84.8kg, and in 2015 it was 105.4kg, a 24.3 per cent increase. Injury rates are increasing alarmingly, and parallel to greater size of players at all levels. This correlation cannot be coincidence.
An academic study into South African rugby put the rate of ‘catastrophic injury,’ that is, seriously debilitating, at 2%, and spinal injury at 1%. An injury such as a tear of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament can cost up to £1500 annually, and it is thought that 60% of those who suffer an ACL tear return to playing. However, 29% of injuries are related to a previous accident, and 14% are a direct recurrence. With the issue of injury, rushing back to playing is perhaps the most dangerous action. Dr Jean-Francois Kaux, a medical doctor from the University of Liege, established that the injury rate in Rugby Union ranges from 30 to 91 or even 120 per 1000 match hours. This is a rate far beyond most other contact sports.
The rates are comparable in New Zealand, Ireland, Australia and the United Kingdom. The most likely parts of the body to suffer are anterior thigh, knee, lower leg, hip and shoulder. For anyone pursuing a life outside of rugby, these can be disastrous. An investigation by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that the 25 – 29-year-old age group is that most at risk of injury, followed by 15 – 19. A cursory glance at the size of some of those competing at the U-20’s World Cup this month explains this trend. As anybody who as experienced high-level school age rugby recently knows, it is not unusual to find 16-18 year olds the size of professionals.
Why? Well professionalism and the access to greater sports science and gym equipment tells part of the story, but there is also a worryingly high level of doping creeping into amateur sport. The UK Anti-Doping Agency (UKAD) recently declared the situation is “increasingly becoming a crisis,” and 50% of respondents to a BBC poll said taking performances enhancing drugs (PED’s) was widespread, 35% admitted they knew PED users and 8% confessed they themselves had taken steroids. Of the 52 people in the UK on the UKAD list of sanctioned dopers 16 are from Rugby Union and 15 from league.
As whistle-blower Daniel Spencer-Tonks admitted, a former England Under-16 rugby union player, drug use at all levels of the sport is increasingly widespread. As Tonks said to BBC 5 Live, “more people are taking it at the lower level because obviously there is testing at the higher level and there is more support and gym work.” The RFU has recognised publicly the problem exists, but as of yet no extensive clamp down has materialised.
Rugby is changing fast. Those involved in the sport need to recognise this, and begin to question its desirability, and perhaps possible ways of arresting the progression towards bigger and bigger players. There are potentially serious consequences.
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Written by Joe Ronan