Sports: How safe is rugby

Americans are talking about it, some in UK are also sitting up and taking notice; it's time New Zealand also tackles Rugby safety issues head-on 

When a young 27-year-old rugby player with only one All Blacks appearance announces retirement at the peak of his game, it's time to sit-up and take notice. Chief's Ben Afeaki on April 10, 2015, informed the gathered media that he will be retiring from all forms of rugby. This came just over a year after Afeaki suffered a head-on-collision with his team-mate Brodie Retallick in February 2014.

For him, the choice was simple. Keep playing and run the risk of suffering irreparable damage to his health and long-term symptoms; or move on. Thankfully, Afeaki chose the latter.

But the recent event has once again focussed attention on the dangers faced by rugby players all over the world, especially as regards to head injuries and resulting brain damage or concussions.

Conspiracy of silence

As rugby is a contact – or as some say – a collision sport, which involves high-velocity physical tackles, the associated injury risk is significant. But as noted by Allyson Pollock, a lead researcher at the Barts Centre for Trauma Sciences at University of London and author of the book 'Tackling Rugby', in her article published in The Independent, there's a “conspiracy of silence” which has endured for over 40 years regarding serious injuries on the rugby field.

Pollock, who got interested in the subject after her son suffered numerous serious injuries playing the game, argues that “general ignorance about the hazards of rugby is largely due to an absence of systems able to promote monitoring and data collection” and most often “parents are not made aware that on the available evidence”.

In a separate article, she goes as far as to say that “failure of government and rugby authorities to collect data is also a failure to comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

And things have worsened since 1995 when rugby became a professional game. As early as 2000, only five years later, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that injuries among rugby union players had almost doubled since 1995.

Situation in New Zealand

In New Zealand too, while rugby-related concussions have risen by almost 150 percent in the last four years, not many have studied the long-term effects of concussions on rugby players. In fact, as reported by, Auckland University of Technology's IRB Rugby Health Study initiated in 2012, couldn't find enough elite rugby players to help with the study.

To be sure, New Zealand Rugby (NZR) do have a RugbySmart programme which was started in 2001 across all levels of the game and is aimed at “ensuring all players are physically and technically at their peak before they lace up their boots”. Even though NZR claims that after the programme was initiated, there has been “significant drops in rugby-related injury claims” doesn't hold water amidst rising ACC claims which reached NZ$1,620,933 last year.

But one good thing about RugbySmart is the mandatory injury prevention courses for all rugby referees and coaches of grades over Under 13 level at the start of every rugby season.

Comparisons with American football

None less than the American President himself when asked about the dangers associated with American Football – a sport not much different from rugby - had told the New Republic few years back, “I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”

And his fears are not unfounded. Study findings revealed in 2014 by US' largest brain bank on traumatic brain injuries “found evidence of a degenerative brain disease in 76 of the 79 former players it’s examined”.

Commenting on the findings was Dr Ann Mckee, the brain bank's director, who argued that the findings clearly suggest a clear link between football and traumatic brain injury.

So while Americans are waking up to dangers associated with what they call football – with US National Football League tentatively agreeing to monetary compensate 18,000 retired players – rugby authorities don't seem too keen to gather proper data for injuries related to their sport.