Monday 22 April 2019

Tackle ban in schools rugby a 'no-brainer,' says dementia expert

Action from the Leinster Schools Senior Cup semi-final, between Clongowes Wood and Cistercian College Roscrea Photo: Sportsfile
Action from the Leinster Schools Senior Cup semi-final, between Clongowes Wood and Cistercian College Roscrea Photo: Sportsfile
Players from Castletroy College during the Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final against Crescent College Comprehensive Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Allison Bray

An expert on dementia at Trinity College Dublin says she fully supports calls to ban tackling in schools rugby after 70 leading doctors and academics from the UK and the US wrote to health and child welfare officials here urging them to do so.

Trinity College psychology professor Dr Sabina Brennan, who is director of the college's dementia research programme, said there was a growing body of scientific evidence that shows repeated head injuries and concussions sustained by children while playing contact sports like rugby can lead to life-long impairment of brain function and dementia in later life.

"This isn't cotton wool parenting. We need to err on the side of caution," she told the Irish Independent. "It's more than an accident waiting to happen."

She is urging the next Government to consider a complete ban on tackling in schools rugby games after the 70 experts wrote an open letter to Sports Minister Paschal Donohoe, Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan, Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon and the office of the Chief Medical Officer warning of the high risk of serious injury for under-18s when playing contact sports. None of the offices cited have responded to the letter so far.

However, the national and international bodies for rugby, including the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and World Rugby, have rejected calls for the ban. This is despite studies cited in the letter showing the "high risk" and "often serious" injuries to under-18 players.

Signatories to the letter, including sports academics, doctors and public health officials, urged the Irish and UK governments to substitute tackling with non-contact versions of the sport, warning that failure to do so "can have short-term, life-long, and life-ending consequences for children".

But in a statement last night, the IRFU said the long-term health and personal benefits of playing rugby "far outweigh the risks".

"There is a risk of injury in all contact sports and while World Rugby and the IRFU, in partnership with Ulster University and other institutions, are undertaking research into this important area, we would welcome the opportunity to partner with government agencies in the development of evidence- based research into the risks and rewards associated with all sports," the IRFU said.

Former Irish international David Wallace echoed concerns about a tackling ban.

"I suppose you have to listen to medical opinion, that's the first thing and you'd be foolish not to listen to expert opinions," he said.

"But you don't want to sanitise rugby. You obviously want kids to enjoy it. My seven-year-old has been playing rugby in Garryowen for three or four years and now that he has started contact, it is a different sport for him. And he's loving it.

"Banning tackling won't work. You can't go from zero to 100. The best thing to do is to try to govern it properly rather than removing something so integral to the game.

"Because without the contact and the tackling, it is not rugby. You have to work with what you have rather than being absolutely prohibitive."

Adam White, a researcher at the University of Winchester in the UK and the Sports Collision Injury Collective, which is behind the open letter, said around a third of rugby players suffer injuries ranging from broken limbs to traumatic brain injuries each year.

And he claimed the current measures in place to protect young players from injury are not sufficient.

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