Firstly, I am very sad that these players are in this terrible position. It is incredibly sad, but not unforeseeable considering the toll that players bodies take in play and training. You might be surprised, considering that I work in health and safety, but I think that there is a place for ‘well controlled’ rugby in schools. I am a real rugby fan and developed this love of the sport when I was lucky enough to support the rugby academy at the general FE college where I worked at the time.
They had a great coach who instilled a real importance of reporting head injuries and vigilance for the signs and symptoms amongst the teaching assistants, first aiders, parents and match officials. We followed the graduated return to play and made sure that the players knew what it was, why we did it and why they should support the process.
In my opinion, rugby has a culture where players push past pain and discomfort, brushing away blood from injuries. It is hardly surprising that young players see this and feel that they have to do the same. By no means am I saying that they have accepted this, more that, perhaps they were not made aware of the long-term effects of following the culture of the sport. It is important that we make sure that rugby students learn that they must take their long-term health seriously, because they are the players of the future.
I believe that rugby, as with all team sports, does more than gives kids exercise and allows them to blow off some steam. It builds an understanding of rules and acceptable behaviour, respect of the officials, working together as a team towards a shared goal and learning to deal with the disappointment when they don’t play well, or the team lose.
But, saying all of this, there must be stringent controls. Rugby must be risk assessed and controls to prevent concussion implemented. The type of play needs to be appropriate for the age, skill set, conditions and fitness of the players. Touch rugby is not a poor substitute, but a sensible non-contact option which all players can play and there should be an option to not play if that is their wish. The NFL have identified the need for non-contact practice, and I feel that this would be a positive step to be taken.
You must understand and follow the graduated return to play and instil a culture of reporting from the players. Encourage them to understand that it is not a break from play, but a sensible option to help them recover from an injury, no different to a groin sprain. Make sure that your coaches, teaching assistants, first aiders and nurses know the signs and symptoms of concussion and remove players from the pitch to make a head assessment, if they have any doubts at all. There are lots of resources on England Rugby, IRFU, Rugby Football League and the football association (so I found recently), please take a look and make use of them.
So yes, I support the teaching and playing of rugby as an option at school, but in doing so you must make sure you implement the correct controls, to do it safely.