With more than $80 million spent on rugby-related injuries last year, Scott Barrett red-carded for a dangerous tackle and mounting evidence about the long-term dangers of head knocks, rugby mum Jane Phare questions is it worth the risk?
Watching the grainy footage of the moment Cody Everson breaks his neck is heartbreaking. It is in the first two minutes of a 1st XV game between Shirley Boys' High School and Christ's College in Christchurch when the then 15-year-old goes down.
He lies prone on the field, his head moving slightly, stranded while his teammates – unaware he is in trouble - scramble for the ball above him. No-one is aware that the teenager will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
The footage is embedded in a video, Being Me: Cody steps up , made by video production company Attitude Pictures which tells the story of the remarkable progress this young man has made since that fateful day eight years ago.
It's awful footage that makes tears prick behind my eyes. As a rugby mum of a 14-year-old I've spent hours on the sidelines since the days of junior club rugby, intermediate 1st XV, and Walter Dixon and Roller Mills tournaments. Now my son's in the Under 14s and Under 15s open-weight squads, playing against boys who are sometimes 30 kilos heavier.
As players get bigger, stronger and faster the hits, and risks, become more dangerous. These days there's a tug of fear that I never felt watching his games of cricket, football, water polo, touch rugby or basketball.
And there's the dilemma. We, as a nation, love the game of rugby. The parents love it, our kids love it, they're good at it, they get selected. At what stage do we step in and say no, sorry, you can't play?
Aucklander Leah Simpson is the mother of three rugby-mad boys, Rico, 13, Cruiz, 11, and Keanu, 10. Of course she worries, she says. "I think about it all the time. It's a contact sport and with any contact sport there's a risk."
She worries more as her sons get older and the game becomes more physical.
"But they absolutely love it. They'd just be miserable if I didn't let them play it. I'd be the worst mum on the planet."
She too has had doubts, wonders how she would cope if one of her boys was seriously injured. With three boys playing hard and competitively, Simpson knows she has three times the chance of facing bad news.
She'd like to see the tackle zone lowered to the chest – or "nipple zone" – to reduce the incidents of accidental head-high tackles.
Simpson is particularly vigilant about head knocks and bleeding noses. She's stood her ground against her husband Shaun, himself a former competitive rugby player, and her eldest son who wanted to go back on after a head knock.
She's warned her boys that if they ever try to hide a head knock from her, it will be the end of their rugby.
Life in a wheelchair
Cody Everson, now 23, is glad his mother was late to the start of that fateful rugby game and didn't see him go down. She still gets upset when she sees him struggle to do simple tasks others take for granted.
But eight years later Everson is in a good place, and philosophical about his life as a tetraplegic, an injury that affects all four limbs. He's bought a house, lives with his partner Jess Roberts and their two bulldogs, he travels to play wheelchair rugby with the Wheel Blacks, and helps motivate others who find themselves in a wheelchair.
He won't hear a word said against rugby. He watched the All Blacks being caned by the Australians last weekend and says if somehow, by some miracle, he could get up out of his wheelchair he would even consider playing again. "I'd love that. I was pretty good at it."
But next time round, he says, he would do things differently. If there's one bit of advice Everson wants to give up-and-coming rugby players it is listen to your body and be sensible.
Everson was the smallest and youngest player in his 1st XV team. Playing against Christ's College that day he was up against future All Blacks like Damian McKenzie. It was an experience he was not about to miss.
Everson's mother feared he would get hurt playing in the 1st XV at such a young age. "But I was too proud then to take it into consideration, that maybe I should have waited until I was a bit bigger and older."
He hasn't talked much about the next part of the story. A few weeks before his accident, Everson injured his shoulder and neck during a game against Christchurch Boys' High School, enough to come off the field.
Afterwards he experienced "weird cramps" in his neck but didn't go to the doctor, instead playing the next few games with his shoulder strapped. There was damage lurking, he thinks, well before that fateful Christ's College game.
Everson tries not to dwell on it but admits, in hindsight, he could have done more to make sure he was fit. "I didn't know about anything back then."
Please stop playing "thugby"
Former Northland rugby player Darryl Sabin is a case in point. His father Mike tried desperately to stop his teenage son from playing after a series of concussions in rough games he came to call "thugby", taking him to see a neurologist, approaching the Northland Rugby Union, pleading with coaches and even considering a court injunction.
But Darryl was determined to play. On Anzac Day, 2009, he suffered a severe brain bleed during a game and the family were faced with a decision to turn off life support. A slight wiggle of Darryl's left thumb stopped them in their tracks. So started a remarkable battle to re-learn how to see, speak, eat and walk.
In the room next door, All-Black coach Sir Graham Henry was visiting his brother-in-law.
Learning about Darryl's plight, Henry slipped a note under his pillow, an inspirational message Mike Sabin read every day to his son.
The first time Henry visited to give Darryl an All Blacks jersey, Mike had to hold one of his son's eyelids open so that he could see. Henry issued a challenge: if Darryl was up walking in six weeks, he would be a guest of the All Blacks at an upcoming Tri-Nations in Sydney. Darryl made it and has since been a guest at several major rugby fixtures.
It's that "wrap-around support" from the rugby community that New Zealand Rugby Foundation CEO Lisa Kingi-Bon says is their biggest strength. If a rugby player suffers a serious injury anywhere in New Zealand, Kingi-Bon is likely to know about it within hours.
The foundation has 99 VIPs (very injured players) on its books, most of them in wheelchairs. The youngest is 16, the oldest 76. It is a partnership for life, she says.
Next goal the Paralympics
Last weekend Cody Everson posted a message on his Facebook page saying he wanted to give a "massive shout-out" to the foundation.
"You guys have been amazing since my accident. Your continued support has had a huge influence to all the things I'm achieving now so thank you! Next goal is to qualify for (the) Paralympics in Korea (in) two weeks' time."
Over and above ACC coverage, seriously injured rugby players receive a $150,000 insurance payout and help with things not covered by ACC including home maintenance, extra heating, education, sporting equipment and funds to attend tournaments, fine arts pursuits, legal assistance and social occasions for the families.
One woman working with disabled people has labelled the foundation New Zealand Rugby's "guilt fund" but Kingi-Bon rejects that. She points out that the foundation was set up independently in 1986 with the help of a $1 million donation from Goodman Fielder Wattie, and overseen by a board that included All Black greats like Sir Brian Lochore and Sir Wilson Whineray.
It wasn't until 12 years later that the New Zealand Rugby Union contributed a one-off grant of $1 million. Since 2003 it has given an annual grant of $400,000.
The foundation's capital fund now stands at $5.6 million, but the majority of the annual payouts come from donations and fundraising, backed by foundation patrons like former All Black Richie McCaw and Sir Graham Henry.
There's little doubt New Zealand Rugby has invested time, money and effort into player safety. Twenty years ago, catastrophic spinal injuries - as many as 10 a year - were a sad but little talked-about part of the game.
Those numbers dropped off markedly after the introduction in 2001 of the RugbySmart injury prevention programme.
Last year one player ended up in a wheelchair and another in 2017. There have been none so far this year. But few would argue that even one player a year is one too many.
Steve Lancaster, head of participation and development for New Zealand Rugby, says the aim is to have no catastrophic injuries.
The organisation has invested heavily in progressive development programmes which include teaching tackling techniques, coach education and safe play. Players are also encouraged to report injuries, suspected concussion and seek medical help.
In addition it is encouraging unions to introduce restricted weight grade competition such as Auckland Rugby's 1R restricted weight grade.
Recognising that not everyone wants to play full-contact ripper, NZR has introduced Quick Rip in pre-teen and teenage grades, a seven-a-side game still with scrums, line-outs and ball kicking but no tackles or rucks.
Lancaster acknowledges that still more can be done to improve the safety of rugby but says World Rugby changes such as tackling from the waist down could introduce unintentional dangers to players such as impact with a hip or knee.
"This is the stuff you've got to trial before you introduce it."
But there are plenty who say "hands off" rugby, including those who now spend their lives in a wheelchair. "Shit happens," they say.
That's the view of mouth-and-foot artist Grant Sharman who has spent the past 42 years in a wheelchair since a freak accident at King's College when he was 15.
He remembers the day it happened - July 6, 1977 - during a house game between Parnell and Marsden. Without thinking he dived head-first into a ruck near the goal line and was squashed between two players. In that instant, his neck broke.
"The next thing I was lying in the mud and everyone was running away. I couldn't move, I couldn't hear, I couldn't feel. I was very scared."
At his bedside in Middlemore Hospital, Sharman's mother Joyce was told her only child was paralysed from the chest down, a fact of life she would never get over until the day she died.
"I was mum's golden-haired boy. I was going to do everything and as far as she was concerned my life was shattered."
Sharman doesn't agree. He's on holiday in Queensland with his family when I ring, a cheerful and robust-sounding man with a sense of humour that is never far away. That's probably what attracted his wife, Jenny to him.
He spent 11 years at the Otara spinal unit where Jenny was a nurse. He finally left in 1988 and they married two years later. Jenny's three children, and grandchildren, are to all intents and purposes his family.
He holds no grudge against the game. He and Jenny own a nice home, Sharman makes a good living as an artist, he captained and coached the Wheel Black rugby team for years, and he has travelled the world.
Sharman's views on rugby and what happened to him are unequivocal. With every contact sport comes the risk of injury, sometimes serious, he says. People have died after being hit by a hockey ball or stick, or by a cricket ball.
"That's called life and living."
When serious rugby injuries – or red card incidents – occur, it stirs things up, he says.
"It's a very emotive issue. It's our national game and the All Blacks are gods."
Sharman credits New Zealand Rugby for changing rules, taking head injuries seriously and making school rugby safer.
"But it doesn't matter what they do. At some point, someone's going to get hurt. We've just got to get our heads around that and accept it the same way that we accept there is a road toll. What are we going to say, no-one can drive anymore?"
His point is brought home on the Mouth and Foot Painting artists' website which profiles the artists and their stories. While a few are there as a result of a rugby accident, the majority are not. More often the back story involves a motor car or motor bike accident, or diving into a shallow swimming pool.
Figures from ACC back that up. The numbers of people suffering serious injury, tetra/paraplegic or traumatic brain injury over the past five years are: rugby, 6; football/soccer, 4; car accidents, 344; cycling, 64.
Last year ACC claims for rugby injuries totalled $84.5 million – the most expensive sport in terms of injury claims – but claims for car accidents were more than three times that at $297.3m.
Statistics aside, Sharman says there is a ripple effect in the rugby community from a spinal injury or brain injury – the heartbroken parents, shocked club members, the guilt-ridden mates who play on and walk free.
Twenty years after his accident Sharman met one of his teammates, a hooker in that King's house rugby game, who asked if he was okay. Sharman was struck by the look of sheer relief on the man's face when he told him that life was good.
"This poor guy and others had carried this around for years and years. It really blew me away."
Dan Buckingham, 38, has mixed views about rugby. He's been in a wheelchair as a high-functioning tetraplegic since he broke his neck 20 years ago in a club game while at Otago University.
He doesn't blame the game, describing his accident as a "random act" that all the strength, conditioning and training in the world couldn't have prevented.
Buckingham, general manager of Attitude Pictures, says he and his fiance Samantha have discussed the dangers of the game with a view to future children. He says they would not stop a son or daughter from playing rugby if that is what the child wanted to do.
However he thinks all sports evolve and that it is always worthwhile to keep reviewing the rules, particularly where safety is involved. And he thinks if rugby were to disappear, the void would be filled with other less-dangerous contact sports that still provided physicality, competitiveness and camaraderie.
Having said that, he admits there is something about the camaraderie and fun of rugby that is difficult to describe to non-players. "There are so many good things about rugby, the need to play hard and competitively. It's what attracts people to the game in the first place."
He still misses it and filled the gap by playing wheelchair rugby for 16 years and, more recently, competing in half and full wheelchair marathons.
It's that camaraderie that gets us hooked as parents and it's different from the many other sports we've been involved in. Take last year's Roller Mills tournament at St Peter's in Cambridge. The 24 families involved in the Roller Mills East squad are bonded for life. I'm on Facebook with some wonderful Samoan families I would never otherwise have met, and my son's on Instagram and Snapchat with the boys. We now meet on opposite sides in schoolboy rugby but the families still hug on the sidelines.
After 11 weeks of gruelling training three times a week, and playing their hearts out through the week-long tournament, they won. But even if they hadn't, the memories would have made up for it: the blue-and-white face paint and feathered costumes, our Samoan drumming squad, the multi-cultural chant the boys learned, the fundraising, the shared dinners, the parties, carting what seemed like three tonnes of washing to a Cambridge laundromat, our coach Bond Tagaloa - a legend - secretly teaching the boys to sing Bob Marley's Three Little Birds for a surprise performance one night.
One of my favourite videos was taken by the little brother of one of the players as my son starts running from the far end of the field in what was to be a runaway try, which he then converted. The footage is bumpy and grainy, and misses most of the action. But it's the audio that tells the story -the drums thumping, parents screaming encouragement as he runs, fends off, and keeps running. Then the eruption of cheers, chants and drumming when he makes it. It's a collective euphoria and pride that is difficult to emulate in any other sport, possibly because it is so physical and difficult to get those tries.
American neuropathologist Dr Bennet Omalu believes children should be banned from playing contact sports until the age of 18 due to the risk of concussion.
"It's almost like child abuse, to intentionally expose a child to injury," he said in a Sydney Morning Herald interview this month.
It was Omalu who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brains of NFL stars. He was played by Will Smith in the Hollywood blockbuster movie Concussion which covered the story of the Nigerian-born doctor and his determination to discover why retired professional NFL players were developing dementia.
Since then mounting and compelling evidence has linked concussion and even lighter head knocks to the risk of long-term neurological disorders.
But ACC's Isaac Carlson is not sure that banning contact sport until the age of 18 will solve the problem. Rather it could simply shift the problem to an older age group, not eradicate it.
"You've missed all of those development years about building those skills."
Neither does Carlson hold with Omalu's view that very physical contact sports will disappear in a generation or two.
Though the fight-to-the-death gladiator sports no longer exist, the popularity of sports like mixed martial arts are on the rise.
Participants are already aware of the risks, yet they still compete in contact sports because that's part of the challenge. The risk is one of the drawcards for a number of contact sports, he says.
"I don't know if we will ever evolve out of that being part of human nature."