Call to ban tackling in school age rugby over brain injury fears
Nine former professionals with brain injuries, including England World Cup winner Steve Thompson, are pursuing legal action over a failure of duty of care by game's governing bodies; England head coach Eddie Jones has proposed a ban on tackling above the waist for primary school children
By Martha Kelner, Sky News sports correspondent
Last Updated: 18/12/20 11:03am
A group of academics are urging the UK chief medical officers to ban tackling in school age rugby union amid growing worries about brain injuries in the sport.
The England head coach Eddie Jones last week proposed a ban on tackling above the waist for primary school children to encourage future players to tackle low.
Dr Adam White, a Lecturer in Sport and Coaching Sciences at Oxford Brookes University, said: "We should be prioritising brain health and mental health of young people before we even consider thinking about rugby union as a game.
"Yes it would change the game, but we're talking about school physical education and just removing the tackle from that context."
Collisions and concussions are part and parcel of rugby, but the very essence of the game is now up for debate because of recent events.
The RFU said it "works hard to manage the risk involved in the contact nature of rugby, particularly for young people".
"PE in school is compulsory however rugby is not," the governing body said. "It is up to schools how they organise their PE curriculum and the RFU and England Rugby Football Schools Union work closely to support teachers and coaches with guidance and resources, especially around players' safety and welfare.
"We recognise that contact sport does not appeal to everyone. Rugby for young people at schools or clubs in England exists in different forms, both contact and non-contact such as touch or tag. The rules in operation ensure maximum possible safety for children, allowing players the time to learn rugby basics before contact is gradually introduced."
Nine former professionals suffering with serious brain injuries are taking legal action against World Rugby, England Rugby (RFU) and Wales Rugby Union (WRU), claiming the game's governing bodies failed in their safeguarding duties.
The lawyer leading their legal challenge says up to 100 more players are waiting in the wings to potentially join their legal challenge.
"We need to make changes now so we don't have another generation suffering from dementia," said Dr White. "It's dangerous to have two 18 stone men running at each other but it's more dangerous to have a nine-stone schoolboy colliding with a six-stone boy."
Neil Spence, a former England Under-21 and Rotherham Titans back row, was diagnosed with early onset dementia at 44 after sustaining countless concussions and is part of the legal action.
"I've lost count of the number of concussions and head injuries I have had through my career," he said. "In fact, I used to judge how well I had played based on how fuzzy-headed I felt at the end of a game.
"The effects would go on for days, the headaches, the confusion, the memory loss and that was just the short-term effects of the concussion where I've been knocked out cold."
Spence also has suspected Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head.
"My fiancé Sarah often says that I have lost my fun side. I used to be the life and soul of the party, but I feel that side of me is lost forever.
"Sarah will regularly find items in odd places in the house, I might put something meant for the fridge in the dishwasher and vice-versa. I also am prone to violent verbal outbursts and regularly forget what I am talking about."
Spence says he would not want his kids to play the game unless the rules are changed to improve safety.
"It's a game I've loved, I still love watching, still involved in coaching, I just want to make the game safer."
The governing bodies have a maximum of three months from the date of acknowledgment of the Letter of Claim to provide their initial responses.
In a joint statement, they said: "World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union can confirm they have received a letter of claim from solicitors representing certain players and will now take time to consider its contents. We have been deeply saddened to hear the brave personal accounts from former players.
"Rugby is a contact sport and while there is an element of risk to playing any sport, rugby takes player welfare extremely seriously and it continues to be our number one priority.
"As a result of scientific knowledge improving, rugby has developed its approach to concussion surveillance, education, management and prevention across the whole game."