Monday 14 October 2019

My shock when I saw my nephew stagger on rugby pitch

Sinead Moriarty. Photo: Ronan Lang
Sinead Moriarty. Photo: Ronan Lang
Sinead Moriarty

Sinead Moriarty

Last year I watched in shock as my 15-year-old nephew got up from a tackle and began to stagger around the pitch during a junior cup rugby match. He was concussed.

Thankfully, despite wanting to play on, he was taken off by his coach. A total of 43pc of sport-related injuries in secondary-school children in Ireland are now attributed to rugby: three times more than in any other sport

Since the game turned professional, rugby has changed and become a lot more dangerous and aggressive. A study has revealed that Irish school rugby teams are suffering 4.23 injuries per match. Most of this is due to the change in style of play.

It used to be about evasion and tackling below the waist, now it's all about contact and running straight into players.

Young players are also becoming much bigger and stronger and there are a lot more collisions in the average match. Teenagers are going to the gym where they are doing unsupervised workout programmes, lifting huge weights to try to bulk up so they can compete.

Experts are saying that players now have a one-in-six chance of serious injury every season. You wonder if it's worth it.

The International Rugby Board (IRB) figures show that over the last 15 years, players' weight has increased by 10pc.

While weight is increasing, so is the number of tackles. Over the same period of time, the average number of tackles per match has risen from 160 to 220.

Michael Carter, a paediatric neurosurgeon at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, has called on regulatory bodies to protect young players, and says a failure to do so could "threaten the survival of rugby in its present form".

Carter warns that our young rugby players are being exposed to risks. "Schools, coaches and parents all contribute to a tribal, gladiatorial culture that encourages excessive aggression, suppresses injury reporting, and encourages players to carry on when injured."

Acquired Brain Injury Ireland (ABI Ireland), which has been campaigning to highlight the dangers of head injury in rugby and other sports, agrees with Carter. Karen O'Boyle, ABI Ireland communications executive, is frustrated that no real changes have been made to the game despite players getting bigger and the collisions getting harder.

Rugby Union is currently played in more than 100 countries across five continents by more than three million people between the ages of six and 60. It's a game people enjoy playing and watching. But if we're not careful, parents will start discouraging their children from playing it. No one wants to risk their child's safety for a game. Every year in Ireland, 8pc of young rugby players give up because of injury.

New Zealand, a country famous for its All Black rugby team, wants to make rugby safer. In a country obsessed with rugby, they have acted to keep their youngsters safe on the pitch. RugbySmart is a joint campaign between the Accident Compensation Corporation and the New Zealand Rugby Union. Introduced in 2001, it has reduced the number of serious spinal injuries from more than 10 a year to fewer than three.

How have they achieved this result? The RugbySmart initiative focuses on tackles and scrums, ruck and maul techniques, physical conditioning specific to the demands of rugby, encouraging the use of mouthguards and the appropriate treatment and management of injuries.

The New Zealand Rugby Union has also made it compulsory for all coaches to attend RugbySmart workshops, which teaches them how to ensure players are physically and technically prepared for the game. This is heartening news. Any reduction in injuries is good news. We need to introduce a similar scheme here in Ireland to keep our young players safe.

A recent Oireachtas report has linked the increasing size of players with a higher rate in concussion. Findings are all very well, but now we need to push for funding to solve the problem.

It is only by deciding on national, uniform safety protocols, backed up by financial support that we can start making the rugby pitch a safer place for our children. The key to this is to educate the kids and, most of all, educate the coaches.

Back in 1975, Jack Kyle, former international rugby union player and surgeon, said: "Let us have no conspiracy of silence with regard to these serious injuries or to deaths on the rugby field. Our duty is to study the mechanisms of injury in all phases of the game. Then, and only then, will we be able to take preventative action."

Forty years on and the injuries in rugby are worse and more frequent. It's time to do something about it.

Irish Independent

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