Exclusive: Academics call on government to ban contact rugby in schools

There are calls to ban contact rugby union in schools. Credit: PA
  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies, words by Sports Producer Dan Salisbury-Jones

A group of leading academics are calling on the UK Chief Medical Officers to ban contact rugby union in schools.

The move follows legal action taken by a group of former professional players who are now living with brain damage.

Dr Adam White, a lecturer in sport and sciences at Oxford University told ITV News: “We’re asking that we remove contact rugby from the school PE curriculum due to all of the harms and issues that we’ve seen in rugby over the last few weeks.

"We recognise that contact or tackling in rugby is a high and serious risk of injury. In fact researchers from the RFU themselves recognise that rugby union has a higher risk of injury compared to other sports.

“So we just don’t feel that there’s a need for this to be included in the school PE curriculum, it’s a real easy option to just remove it from the curriculum and allow people to choose whether they want to participate in after school clubs or in the community game.”

The group, which includes lecturers from Newcastle and Winchester Universities, first raised the issue four years ago but believe the legal action will spark some momentum for change.

“I think the Chief Medical Officers need to take this seriously and we can see now that multiple players are starting to speak up about this issue and when some of the greatest people in our game are starting to speak out about these problems we know it’s an issue.

“Four years ago when we raised this issue to the CMOs they might’ve thought of us as being difficult but it’s really hard to disagree with people like Steve Thompson, a world cup winner and phenomenal hooker so why are we not listening to those people?”

Others caution against making links between issues in the professional game and juniors playing in school.

Dr Sam Barke, from the specialist research group Return2Play, wrote this week: “Reducing incidence of head injury is beneficial at all levels of the game. This is obvious. But it would be over simplistic to say that the risks in the adult elite game can be applied to those in school-age rugby.”

One school has already taken the leap to ban tackles, a decision taken by a former Harlequins, Bath and Bristol rugby player.

Jamie Johnston, the director of athletics at Egham International School removed contact rugby from the school when he joined in 2019.

He said: “If I can’t look a parent in the eye and say yes I can guarantee your son or daughter is going to be safe playing this sport and everything we do will mitigate that, then I’m not very happy with the sport. Obviously there’s an element of risk in any sport but having said that, at the moment the cons outweigh the pros in rugby. "

He replaced contact rugby with touch and he can understand why that decision disappointed some of his students.

“Of course because they love it and I did when I was playing, it’s one of the best parts about rugby, being able to hit somebody hard, legally fairly and pick yourselves up and get on with that.

"The issue for me, as I say, is the long term damage that can do to a growing brain. We’re talking about kids whose brains are still developing. It’s not necessarily the massive collisions that we’ve spoken about before but the drip, drip, low impact you have from contact that you can have from just making normal tackles during the game .

"A game like touch is an attractive game, you have a lot of the skills involved in rugby, you don’t have the contact element, which is one of the main attractions of rugby and I understand that, but you do get everything else.”

An RFU spokesperson said: "PE in school is compulsory, however rugby is not. It is up to schools how they organise their PE curriculum and the RFU and England Rugby Football Schools Union work closely to support teachers and coaches with guidance and resources, especially around players’ safety and welfare.

“We recognise that contact sport does not appeal to everyone. Rugby for young people at schools or clubs in England exists in different forms, both contact and non-contact such as touch or tag.

"The rules in operation ensure maximum possible safety for children, allowing players the time to learn rugby basics before contact is gradually introduced.  The RFU works hard to manage the risk involved in the contact nature of rugby, particularly for young people.”