World Rugby must review rules on tackling, says public health expert

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 22 September 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h5049
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1The BMJ

A campaigner for the game of rugby to be made safer has said that it is vital for the sport’s governing body to review rules on the tackle to reduce the risk of injury.

Allyson Pollock, professor of public health research and policy at Queen Mary University of London, said that the government should act to make rugby in schools a non-contact sport.

She was responding to reports ahead of a BBC Panorama programme, aired on 21 September, in which Martin Raftery, World Rugby’s chief medical officer, said that the tackle would be a focus of discussions about how to make the game safer for athletes.

Data in the Rugby Football Union’s annual report, published in February, showed 86 reported concussions from matches during the 2013-14 season, up from 54 in 2012-13.1 The overall incidence of reported concussions was 10.5 in every 1000 hours of play in 2013-14, up from three concussions per thousand hours in 2005-06.

Concussion was the most commonly reported match injury for the third year in a row and was the reason behind seven retirements from the sport last season. Since then four more players in England and Wales have retired because of concussion. One expert quoted in the Panorama programme said that, on average, one player at every Six Nations match experienced a brain injury.

Raftery told the BBC, “Player welfare is about identifying what the risk is and then bringing about change. There’s no doubt that the biggest area that we know where concussion is going to occur is in the tackle, so that will help us to look at the tackle and see what we can do to make it safer.

“My job is to identify risk and then look for solutions and then present those solutions to the law makers to make the changes that will bring about protection of the athlete.”

Commenting on the reports, Pollock told The BMJ, “It’s a no brainer—take out the tackle, and that would reduce risk of injury dramatically. Rugby officials absolutely need to change the rules: there are tens of thousands of injuries from rugby each year in the UK, and many of those injured end up in the emergency department.

“Three quarters of injuries occur in contact, i.e. collision, and two thirds of concussions occur in the tackle. Many of the injuries are very severe.”

Pollock added, “This [removing the tackle from the game] must be done for children because the government has a duty of care for children. In addition, the game must not be compulsory for any child.

“The government must act now and take the child’s game away from the professional bodies: World Rugby should not decide the laws for the child’s game.”

In April an article published in The BMJ by Pollock and colleagues warned that plans by the UK government to increase participation in rugby in schools were not informed by injury data.2 The authors said that the government “should ensure the safety and effectiveness of (school) sports” and called for injury surveillance and prevention programmes to be established to help reduce injury rates.

World Rugby had a similar duty of care to professional players to that which the government had for children and should introduce new rules to reduce the risk of injury, said Pollock.

Dominic Rumbles, head of communications at World Rugby, told The BMJ that better recognition and reporting of concussion injuries in rugby had led to the rise in reported incidents. Since World Rugby adopted rules on assessing head injuries in August this year the proportion of players with concussion who continued to play on had fallen from 56% to 12%, he said.

World Rugby reviews the laws of the game every four years, the last time being in 2012. Rumbles said that the call for the tackle to be removed the game was consistent with the continued monitoring of player welfare.


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h5049


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