Some of the world's leading experts on head injuries in sport have suggested no children should be playing contact sport before the age of 12.

A group of Boston scientists told the Herald this week that the younger you started sports like rugby and American football, the greater your chances of suffering degenerative brain diseases.

We put that to some key members of the Bay of Plenty rugby and sporting community who accepted the research but had a slightly different view on the best way to prepare children for contact sport and life in general.

The suggestion that children under the age of 12 should not be allowed to play contact sport has been rubbished by members of the Bay of Plenty rugby community.

While those involved in introducing children to contact sport in the Bay of Plenty, many of them parents themselves, accept the Boston scientists' findings, they argue that the same could be said of most rough and tumble activities children get up to.

They say the key to sport is it is played in a safe and controlled environment.

In Bay of Plenty, children play rippa rugby and smaller versions of the game until they are in the under-8 grade and then progress to contact.


Central Bay of Plenty junior rugby officer Polly Playle said she worried studies like these would put off parents who didn't know the game.

As well as her role with the rugby union, she plays premier rugby and has a daughter who plays.

"If I didn't know anything about the game it would be quite off-putting. If I wasn't a rugby player myself and my kid was playing and I heard that I'd be quite concerned.

"From my experiences, it's about learning the right way to tackle and what to do after being tackled to stay safe."

Members of the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union have weighed in on whether children under 12 should play contact sport.

In her role, Playle runs holiday programmes and training modules for junior players which always focus on safety and proper technique.

"We only teach tackle to 9-year-olds and up but in that environment it's controlled and safe - we start right back from the basics and progress. You teach a drill, you let them do it, assess it and then you can modify or progress. You're always assessing and adjusting to make sure they're safe."

Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini grew up as a country kid playing contact sport and feels lucky to have not suffered concussion over the years.

She said she had always enjoyed playing contact sport and believed it was up to the parents to decide what is best for their own children.

"To be honest it's up to the parents choice of what they choose to put their kids in or not, like I don't know, I don't have children at the moment but all I do know is that I grew up playing contact sport. I have been very lucky to not have concussions and I suppose, for me, I've just enjoyed playing them.

"I can't comment on anyone else's decision but if you want to protect yourself then you do everything you can to do that, and that's cool."

Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini grew up playing contact sport. Photo / Getty Images
Black Ferns Sevens captain Sarah Hirini grew up playing contact sport. Photo / Getty Images

Rotorua's Pete Makiha coaches Waikite Kowhai, the only all-girl team in the local under-8 rugby competition and said contact sport should be encouraged for kids, especially girls.

"My team just couldn't wait for tackle season, they love to tackle boys and steal the ball from them. As long as they are taught the correct tackle technique, ie cheek to cheek, and everything else to keep them as safe as can be, I don't see any problem.

"I don't know the stats but I would say more injuries happen on a school playground than on a sports field each week because, unlike playgrounds, sport is played in a controlled environment with plenty of coaching and refereeing courses offered to keep our kids safe during the season.

"It also helps build courage and confidence in a child. Some of my girls are tiny but to see them tackling around the legs and taking tackles from bigger kids, it surprises me and most parents what our girls are really capable of. Every kid is capable of this."

Te Puke Sports committee member Quentin Harris, who is heavily involved with junior rugby at the club, said society was leaning towards being too politically correct and children should be allowed to learn contact sports in a safe environment.

Central Bay of Plenty junior rugby officer Polly Playle says when children play contact sport it's all about learning the right techniques in a safe environment. Photo / File
Central Bay of Plenty junior rugby officer Polly Playle says when children play contact sport it's all about learning the right techniques in a safe environment. Photo / File

"I think if you're going to take contact away from sports, that takes out a lot of sports. There are a lot of other things out there that can hurt kids. My thing on sport is, they look at studies about we shouldn't do this and that but they don't look at what we can do to make it better.

"With rugby, I think if coaches are coaching the right technique, most head injuries probably come from tackling so as long as coaches we get in there and make sure they can tackle on both sides and things like that, they'll be safe."

He said the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union had ensured there was a safe pathway for children to progress to full contact.

"If rippa rugby is coached properly it leads on to tackle rugby, it's a progression. I think there are probably more accidents and injuries in the school playground than on the rugby field. What are you meant to do, stop kids running around at all?"

Bay of Plenty Rugby Union rugby operations manager Neil Alton said New Zealand Rugby, along with the all the provincial rugby unions, had clear pathways for children to progress safely to tackle rugby.

"The main thing, I think, is rugby has a really strong culture of safety first. That's increasing in junior age groups and right through to senior rugby.

"I think we're getting a lot better and a lot of comes down to coach education, awareness and that safety is paramount to keep people participating in the game. We need to make sure, primarily, that participants are as safe as possible.

"We have compulsory courses each year for our coaches to attend. Those are Rugby Smart programmes which provide information around ensuring safe techniques and coaching practices at all the age groups."