Bad news about rugby

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.

Rugby players are now being warned that they risk serious long term injury. There is also concern that not enough is being done to protect young players from brain injury.

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.


  1. Mano Singham says

    Rob @#2,

    Thanks for that article. I had not realized that the weight gains were that large. The much greater emphasis on weight and strength is a dangerous sign. Can steroids be far behind?

  2. Jackson says

    Can steroids be far behind?

    I’ve assumed steroids have been pervasive in the top level of all sports for decades now.

  3. says

    Rob (#2) -- That article isn’t a surprise, and it mirrors what happened in the NFL. This piece lists the weight of linemen from the 1920s to today. Remember Jim Brown, who was considered “huge” when he played in the NFL? He was only 210 pounds.

    It’s no surprise that rugby and other sports are having these problems with the ever increasing weight of players. Players don’t just get heavier as they get bigger, they get faster because of muscle mass. The increase of force in collisions isn’t arithmetic, it’s multiplicative. I would really like to see a comparison of concussions in Rugby 7s versus the other games. Sevens players are much smaller (the need for speed), there are no rucks, and the collisions are far fewer.

    Rugby union and football will either have to change how the game is played or start dictating body weights. One suggestion I’ve read is a maximum weight for the players on the field, similar to Tug Of War. There’s no maximum for any one player, but an oversized player had better be extremely valuable to justify the bulk that forces smaller players into the game. Over time (year by year) the allowable maximum could be reduced as new generations of players enter the sport.

    Hockey can solve this problem with a ban on blindside hits and a ban on fighting. The game can still be played without changing any other rules, something rugby and football cannot do. If hockey does enact such a ban, players will stop becoming so large since there will be no benefit and it will return to being a finesse game.

  4. Friendly says

    In rugby it is also the case that it is only the person who has the ball who can be tackled.

    Only the person with the football can be tackled in American football; tackling someone who isn’t carrying the football will earn one a penalty for holding, illegal use of hands, unnecessary roughness, or some such. However, because of blocking, pass rushing, and pass and rush coverage, lots of people collide violently on each play regardless of whether they are involved in the actual tackle or not.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Friendly @#7,

    I should have been more precise but I was also referring to blocking, especially at the line of scrimmage which can be pretty brutal since those players are huge.

  6. Rob says

    Mano @ 4. I don’t know how widespread the use of steroids is in Rugby, but I think you would have to be naive to assume there is no use at all sadly. There are always going to be some players who can achieve the lean muscle bulk so desired through exercise and nutrition, especially among some populations (one of the reasons Tongans, Fijians and Samoans are so commonly seen in both Union and League. I can’t see everyone doing that though and it has to lead to some doping.

    Leftover1under @ 6. Even many of the sevens players are pretty big these days. Akira Ioane was 103kg and 1.94m as an 18 year old playing sevens (he’s also really fast). Now as a 20 year old playing for Auckland they list his weight at 111kg and still freakishly fast. Glad I never played against guys like these!

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