I’m happy for my kids to keep playing rugby. Are you?

Will you let your children continue playing rugby? Let us know in the comments It

Will you let your children continue playing rugby? Let us know in the comments

It was cold and frosty down at my local rugby club last Sunday morning. But, for the under-11s team I coach, the first training session since lockdown 2.0 was well attended. Some 36 children, including my eldest, turned up; straining at the leash to get out there and get stuck in again after being cooped up indoors for so long. 

It will be interesting to see how many of them are still playing rugby in 10 years’ time. And in what format. 

Tuesday’s revelation that eight former players, including England’s 2003 World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson, his former England team-mate Michael Lipman and ex-Wales international Alix Popham, are preparing to launch a legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union for negligence in failing to protect them from the risks of concussions has led to an unprecedented reckoning for the game.

Thompson, Lipman and Popham have all been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease previously known as punch-drunk syndrome. All three are under the age of 45 and all three believe their dementia is a result of repeated blows to the head. 

A class action lawsuit is likely to follow with lawyers for the group suggesting that another 80 former players between the ages of 25 and 55 are showing symptoms and have serious concerns. 

Of course, it makes you stop and think. As a parent, as a fan, as a coach, do I really want my child playing rugby? My answer: Yes. Undoubtedly. 

Clearly this is a hugely emotive issue. One would have to be tone deaf not to be moved by the stories of those who have come forward. Thompson, 42, cannot remember being in Australia in 2003, let alone lifting the World Cup. Popham’s wife can no longer leave him at home to look after their two-year-old daughter. It is heartbreaking. 

But for me personally, the benefits, certainly of kids’ rugby, still vastly outweigh the risks. Quite apart from the fitness and the teamwork (which of course you could get through playing other sports) rugby is unusual in terms of teaching children how to make and receive tackles, how to manage physical contact, how to cope with a bit of pain, how to overcome fear. That feeling of camaraderie; of protecting your team-mates and having them do the same for you in return. I’ve seen children grow hugely in confidence on the rugby field. I played myself for 20-odd years on and off (albeit as a namby-pamby back) and will certainly still encourage my son to play for now.

At U11s it’s fairly moot anyway as we are only a couple of years into contact and it is very limited. At the moment we are all desperate to increase exposure to it rather than reduce it, with the RFU’s Return to Rugby Roadmap (post-Covid) limiting the amount of contact we are allowed in training sessions. There are no scrums or mauls. We also take any knocks to the head extremely seriously, with all coaches required to undergo Headcase Concussion Awareness courses.

As my son gets bigger, as he and his peers go through puberty and start hitting weights, as the collisions become more violent, if he declared an interest in becoming a professional rugby player, perhaps my thinking would change. It is hard to say at this point.

These stories are desperately sad and raise serious questions about the management of professional and amateur rugby players alike. Perhaps they will lead to sweeping changes in the sport.  But I think ultimately we all accept there is an element of risk involved when we step on to the field. We know that repetitive blows to the head cannot be anything but bad news. It is about the management of that risk, about responsible training, about strict protocols. At the moment, for me, the positives of my son playing rugby still vastly outweigh the negatives.

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