Now that the Rugby World Cup has reached the semi-final stage in England, there is increased interest and I have come across more articles dealing with the game. I stumbled upon one that should be a source of concern for rugby fans because it involves concussions.
A lot of attention has been paid recently to the problem of brain injuries in American football. I had the impression that this was much less of a problem in rugby, although it is also a very physical contact sport. I had put it down to the differences in the two games. In rugby, the players do not wear protective gear. While this may expose them to more injury it may also inhibit them from making dangerous tackles using their heads as battering rams. In rugby it is also the case that it is only the person who has the ball who can be tackled.
But Daniel Schofield writes that the concussion rate in rugby is actually greater than in American football and there is increasing concern about the safety of players.
The Rugby Football Union plans to recruit former England internationals to pioneer a study into the long-term effects of playing rugby as statistics yesterday revealed that the number of concussions suffered by Premiership players increased by 59 per cent last season.
What makes the rising rate of concussions so alarming is the association between repeated head traumas and the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been found in the brains of dozens of deceased American football players.
The NFL, which has a lower rate of concussion than in rugby, is close to finalising a settlement worth $1 billion (£655 million) to more than 4,500 players for hiding the dangers of concussion-related head trauma.
While it is true that in rugby you can only be tackled while carrying the ball, there is still a lot of people colliding with each other during a game because it is so fast-paced and the actual playing time during a game is much more than in football. Also in mauls and rucks and other situations where players can pile onto each other in pursuit of a loose ball, players can get pummeled and kicked in the head. It is also the case that in both games, players seem to be getting bigger, stronger, and faster, thus subjecting themselves to more powerful collisions.
As we are learning with football, it is not only the big bone-jarring collisions that create the brain damage known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The repeated large number of small collisions that people endure during practices and games may be an even larger contributing factor.
As with American football, as there is increasing awareness of the dangers of brain injury, we may find fewer people taking up the game or restrictions on the age at which they can begin playing. Since rugby is more free-flowing than American football, it might be hard to change the rules to protect players but referees might have to be a lot stricter about late tackles and in monitoring the mauls and rucks.