Joe Marler is one of the players to have spoken out against extending the Premiership seasonCharlie

The early weeks of the rugby season have seen the term ‘Player Welfare’ thrust back into the spotlight. The attrition rate in the Premiership seems higher than ever, and there is talk of player strikes over a proposal to extend the season. At the same time, there have been calls from academics to ban tackling in school rugby. English Rugby may be in a “rude state of health”, but the health of its players has never been of greater concern.

Extending the season?

England internationals Joe Marler, Billy Vunipola and now Ben Youngs have spoken out about the possibility of player strikes in response to Premiership Rugby’s plans to extend the season by a month. Given the number of serious injuries in the first month alone, it is not hard to see why. Nick Schonert (broken ankle), Danny Cipriani (knee), Billy Vunipola (knee), Alex Reider (dislocated shoulder), Michele Campagnaro (knee), and Demetri Catrakilis (throat) have all suffered serious long-term injuries, while eight of England’s training squad could not participate fully this week due to knocks.

The idea behind extending the Premiership season to the end of June is that, with summer international tours to take place in July from 2020, Premiership games can be scheduled to avoid the Six Nations, allowing clubs to select their best players. This will bring bigger crowds and larger TV audiences. Unlike football, Rugby Union doesn’t have an ‘international break’. This could be good news for non-international players, as it might allow for a mid-season break, but for the elite players it will mean an 11-month season.

“Of course, banning tackling would reduce the concussion rate – it doesn’t take a scientist to work that out – but then we would no longer be playing Rugby Union”

Speaking to the BBC before his latest injury setback, Saracens and England star Billy Vunipola warned that “players will just burn out” if nothing changes. Having been on the operating table twice (now three times) in one year, he added “kids want to play rugby because it’s fun, but they also need to know that it’s tough, and it’s normal to have surgery at 25 because you’re so worn down.” He also admitted that he would take a pay cut to play fewer games.

As part of their proposal, Premiership Rugby have said the limit on players, of 32 games per season, will stay the same, meaning that England internationals will still have to miss some Premiership fixtures. The fact is that for elite players, it is sometimes club OR country – not both. Premiership clubs with England squad members receive significant compensation for this very reason.

My proposal:

From 2019/20, the Premiership should begin in October and end in May (as it did in the 2015/16 season), and the LV Anglo-Welsh Cup should be scrapped. Autumn Internationals could be shifted back a week or two to make life easier, and the Six Nations would remain as is. England players would then have half of June (and May if their club hasn’t reached the play-offs) to rest before preparing for the summer tour, and a month after that before pre-season begins.

Banning tackling in schools?

The other big news this week was the piece written by Professor Allyson Pollock and Graham Kirkwood in the British Medical Journal which called for tackling to be banned in school rugby.

Referring to their study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in July, they note that rugby has the highest concussion rate in children (4.18 per 1000 athlete exposures) compared to Ice Hockey (1.2) and American football (0.53). They also cited evidence from Canada, arguing rule changes could make a difference. Banning body-checking in U13 ice hockey saw the risk of concussion fall by 67%.

The terrible consequences of concussion have been discussed here before but, unless we want to eliminate the game of Rugby Union altogether, this is not the answer. According to the study, the concussion rate in children is 0.00418%. While extra care must always be taken with brain injuries, given the risk of bumps and bruises in sport generally, this is not high. The real danger lies in repeated concussions. Provided teachers and coaches are properly trained on spotting and dealing with the symptoms of concussion, there is no need to throw the baby out of the bath water.

Of course, banning tackling would reduce the concussion rate – it doesn’t take a scientist to work that out – but then we would no longer be playing Rugby Union. If people are made aware of the risks and want to continue playing this great sport, there is no reason to get rid of it. And unless tackling is to be banned in rugby at all levels, the proposal to ban tackling in schools cannot be taken seriously. Most head injuries occur when players get their heads in the wrong places. Teaching proper tackling technique from a young age is key to ensuring that players tackle safely when they get bigger, faster and stronger – when the risk of concussion is higher.

There have been more calls in recent years to ban tackling from school rugbyBrookie

Another concern is that, owing to the way children develop at different times, small children may find themselves tackling much bigger children despite being the same age. Rather than stopping them from tackling and learning proper technique, why not follow New Zealand’s system of weight-based categories?


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Pollock states that “Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 19) governments have a duty to protect children from risks of injury and to ensure the safety of children”. By teaching good technique, this duty would be fulfilled, whilst allowing children to play a sport which will benefit their health and enrich their lives.

What’s more, a report by Ross Tucker, Martin Rafferty and Evert Verhagen in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in July 2016 concluded that “the proposal to remove all contact from youth rugby should not be supported by Rugby Union governing bodies.” They found “There is little evidence to suggest that Rugby Union exposes youths to risks that are any greater than those involved in a range of team sports” and stated “it may be disingenuous to deny young rugby players the opportunity to be exposed to good teaching of proper technique during formative years, given that it is inevitable that they will be required to tackle if they persist with the sport to a certain age.”

Donald Trump on Concussion

Lastly, during his controversial speech which prompted further protests, Donald Trump criticised the NFL for the way it has been trying to reduce the risk of concussion, which has become something of an epidemic state-side.

He said: “Because you know, today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game. They had that last week, I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom! 15 yards. The referee goes on television, his wife’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game.”

At a time when player welfare is so important in contact sports, such non-sensical comments belittle the good work that is being done, and Trump should be harshly criticised for it. The most recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that 110 out of 111 former NFL players in the study (99%) suffered from CTE (early onset dementia), which can only be diagnosed after death. There is a fear that rugby may not be so different.

Conclusion

Some are talking about banning tackling, some about extending the length of the season, and others are questioning the seriousness of player welfare altogether. World Rugby must provide stronger leadership to ensure consistency of thought at all levels. Player welfare must be prioritised over commercial interests, and a sensible, evidence-based approach is needed. No one wants to see a player strike, and no one wants to watch players who don’t know how to tackle. And no one should listen to Donald Trump.

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