Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby not as dangerous as forgetting to put down a bath mat

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs charges over Nemani Nadolo of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images
Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs charges over Nemani Nadolo of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images

A baffling new format and the addition of two hapless new teams is the least of Super Rugby's worries. What's becoming a bigger danger to the game is an increasingly vocal lobby that believes the sport has become too extreme - that children who play it are almost certainly running an unjustifiably high risk of being injured and that the sport is too big a financial burden on public health systems.

More than 70 doctors and health professionals in the UK have written an open letter to the Government urging them to ban tackling in schoolboy rugby. They have accumulated more than 10 years of research that says the risks of injury - both permanent and temporary are dangerously high - with anyone under the age of 19 having a 28 per cent chance of being hurt in some way if they play rugby.

World Rugby, players, coaches and broader-minded medics have defended the sport, arguing that the holistic benefits outweigh the potential risks.

But the perception is growing that rugby is a sport where the collisions and impacts have become too extreme - that it is no longer an appropriate, default sport for young men and women across New Zealand.

Events at Eden Park in the first weekend of Super Rugby will have strengthened arguments that things are shifting dangerously out of control.

While the Blues came away relatively unscathed, the Highlanders saw Waisake Naholo break his leg while Liam Squire, Daniel Leinart-Brown and Joe Wheeler all came off with suspected concussion.

In the other local derby in Christchurch, Reed Prinsep suffered a sickening blow to the head and was knocked unconscious. The 10 minutes it took to get him safely off the field will have provided all those fearful about the injury rates, with more ammunition.

Yet what rugby is guilty of is not putting young people in harm's way but not working collectively to promote the truth.

The "say-no-to-rugby" lobby is winning the PR war. They are using data, however jaundiced to serve their agenda.

Those who support the alternative story - rugby as character building - are either too ignorant or arrogant to realise that there is a pressing need to push forward numbers to correct perception.

The deafening silence from the game's official bodies in regard to injury rates in itself suggests the game has something to hide.

But the truth, as based on injury claims filed with ACC in 2014, is that children under the age of 18 in New Zealand are almost three times more likely to be injured while playing at home.

Rugby, painted as the big bad wolf, is not as dangerous as forgetting to put down a bath mat.

The combined processes of getting out of bed, eating, drinking and preparing to eat are collectively more likely to result in injury than a youngster throwing himself into a tackle on the rugby field.

Data collection around injuries in the professional game hasn't been a strong point in New Zealand. If there are comprehensive figures, they are largely kept secret. But what is known is that concussion is the injury that causes the most concern.

In 2005, 4.5 concussions were reported for every 1000 hours of professional rugby in New Zealand. By 2013, that number had jumped to 9.6 per 1000 hours.

Rob Nichol, who heads the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association, says that there is consensus in the game that the incidence of concussions is not necessarily rising. The increased figure is largely a result of improved education and processes to diagnose concussion.

That's not to say anyone is complacent or oblivious to the ferocity of the impacts in the collisions. As the players get bigger and stronger, some fear that the game will reach the point where even medics who support active, physical lifestyles will advise against rugby.

But while the players hit each other harder than they ever have, so too are they better prepared than they have ever been.

The big difference between now and 10 years ago is the amount of what is known as pre-hab - strengthening joints and muscles to help prevent injury - and rehabilitation the players now do.

The level of knowledge now is vast and at the top end of the game, the players can absorb and bounce back from the most intense physical punishment.

Rugby's not so dangerous or damaging and perhaps nothing illustrates that better than the fact the All Blacks won the World Cup with a core group of men well into their 30s.

- NZ Herald

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