Allyson Pollock, professor of public health research and policy at Queen Mary University in London, said allowing World Rugby to remain in charge of schools’ rugby was “like letting McDonald’s be in charge of the school canteen”.
Prof Pollock said World Rugby, headquartered in Dublin, is a “multibillion-pound business” run by men who are “only really interested in the professional game”. Yet, the same rules are implemented at school level.
Prof Allyson said for the sake of child safety, radical changes are required, including removing the governance of schools’ rugby from World Rugby.
Prof Pollock was one of 70 leading doctors, academics, and health professionals who, in an open letter addressed to the governments of Britain and Ireland in March, called for a ban on rugby tackling in schools.
To date there has been no response from the Irish Government because it has not yet been formed.
Prof Pollock said the “collision element” of the game needs to be removed from schools’ rugby and an injury-monitoring system put in place, echoing a call by the Irish Medical Organisation, which passed a motion at the weekend calling for a mandatory reporting system of all school sports-related injuries.
Prof Pollock, who spoke at the organisation’s AGM, said people do not understand “the full horrendous range of injuries that occur”.
“It’s not uncommon, children can lose their kidneys as well as having high concussion... You have one neurosurgeon talking about picking out pieces of bone from people’s brains,” she said.
Prof Pollock said since rugby went professional in 1995, the rate of injury had doubled in the adult game and tripled among children.
She said: “We forget that children are always wanting to resemble the professional players. Bodybuilding, taking protein supplements that are injurious for health. They look like monsters but they’re disguising the fact that they’ve got fragile little bones.
“Just children’s ligaments holding these big bodies together. We know with concussion that it has short-term effects — epilepsy, visual problems, headaches, cognitive problems and mental health problems, depression. We still don’t understand the full range of consequences of children being concussed or subjected to repeated concussion.”
Prof Pollock said rugby is “bound up with identities, culture, mothers’ feeling of pride when they make the team”, but parents need to “put their child first” and look at alternatives such as tag-rugby, a non-contact game.
A champion for children’s rights is needed to campaign for the game to be made safe said Prof Pollock.
Prof Pollock said 80% to 90% of injuries happen during collision and three quarters during the tackle. A study in Ulster found that of 825 schoolboys in a season “there were 425 injuries, most of them serious”. It showed a 10%-20% chance of concussion in a season.
She said initiatives such as sideline assessments and a three-week playing ban for those diagnosed with concussion are “after the event”, when the harm is done.
She said her advice to parents is to ask schools for injury data and injury monitoring “And if they can’t give it to them, just walk away.”