Morgan Tait

Morgan Tait is the NZ Herald's consumer affairs reporter.

Revealed: Rugby's $64 million injury bill

Sport's leaders say they're making good inroads into reducing spinal and other serious incidents.

The ACC forked out nearly $64 million for rugby injuries in the past year - with almost 70,000 active claims for players at all levels.

Figures released to the Herald show Accident Compensation received 59,124 new claims for injuries in its 2012/13 financial year and handled 68,437 active claims overall. The cost reached $63.94 million, the highest in at least five years.

As treatment costs have increased, several high-profile, on-field incidents have also highlighted the risks associated with the national game.

Last month, a senior club rugby player died in Auckland after he collapsed at the conclusion of a match, and two weeks ago, a 17-year-old player was placed in an induced coma after his head hit the ground during a 1st XV game in Dunedin.

Despite the treatment numbers, both ACC and rugby officials say they are making "good inroads" to reduce serious incidents - including spinal injuries.

This is especially so in light of the increase in player numbers to more than 150,000.

The All Blacks-Wallabies test in Sydney on Saturday was the first match played under a new rule to reduce risk to players in a scrum. They are now required to bind arms before engaging in the scrum - lessening the impact and increasing balance to reduce scrum collapses.

The International Rugby Board (IRB), which sets the rules of the game, said player safety drove the change. The new law is also being used in the provincial ITM Cup and will be rolled out into club rugby next season.

"Tests have demonstrated that the crouch, bind, set engagement sequence has the ability to reduce forces on engagement by 25 per cent," said Dominic Rumbles of the IRB.

The rule will also be monitored by ACC, which will collate claims data to report scrum-related injury trends since its introduction, said ACC spokesman Glenn Donovan.

He said ACC analysis showed that 46 claims per 100,000 lodged by rugby forwards were for neck, back and spine injuries between 2007 and 2012 - the period coinciding with the previous "crouch, pause, touch" scrum law.

RugbySmart, a joint campaign between ACC and the New Zealand Rugby Union, was introduced in 2001 and had reduced the number of serious spinal injuries from more than 10 a year to fewer than three, said NZRU spokesman Mike Jaspers.

The RugbySmart initiative focused on tackles and scrum, 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.

It was compulsory for all coaches to attend RugbySmart workshops, which taught them how to ensure players were physically and technically prepared for the game.

In July, Takapuna player Willie Halaifonua, a father of two, clashed heads with another player towards the end of a match.

He collapsed a short while later and was placed in an induced coma with a brain bleed. He died in hospital three days later.

On August 3, Dunedin schoolboy Matthew Martin, 17, was critically injured and placed in an induced coma after hitting his head on the ground when tackled during a 1st XV match.

On Sunday, a 12-year-old was flown to Palmerston North Hospital with neck injuries after a tackle during a game in Dannevirke. He was discharged the same day.

- NZ Herald

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