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Mother warns of rugby risk to young players

A LEADING public health expert has said she would have prevented her two sons from playing rugby had she known about the risk of serious injury.

PLAYING IT SAFE: Youngsters protected by helmets take part in a pre-season friendly in Melrose at the weekend. Picture: Gary Hutchison
PLAYING IT SAFE: Youngsters protected by helmets take part in a pre-season friendly in Melrose at the weekend. Picture: Gary Hutchison

The claim is made by Allyson Pollock in her forthcoming book Tackling Rugby: What Every Parent Should Know in which she reveals how her fears surrounding the sport were first raised when her eldest son, Hamish, was a youngster playing in Edinburgh.

Professor Pollock, a former director of Edinburgh University's Centre for International Public Health Policy, is calling for an end to compulsory rugby in schools and for scrums and tackles to be removed at that level.

In her book, due out next month, she recounts the "perfect Saturday afternoons in early autumn in Edinburgh; low sun, a cool wind blows, and behind the high, white goal posts, the Pentland Hills form a glorious backdrop to the fine old oak and chestnut trees sheltering the pitch" as parents gathered "for the weekly ritual to watch their sons play rugby".

After Hamish sustained a series of serious injuries while playing rugby at school, however, the picture she paints is far less rosy.

She writes: "I have a son who has been injured three times ­playing rugby, all before the age of 16.

"He has suffered a broken nose, a fractured leg and a fractured cheekbone with concussion. Until he was injured, like every other parent, I trusted the school and the authorities to look after him and not expose him to the risk of serious harm.

"When my son started playing rugby, I did not ask about the statistics because I assumed monitoring and audit would be routine. But after my son's injuries I soon found out that the situation was not so straightforward."

Ms Pollock, who is now a professor of public health research and policy at Queen Mary University, London, set out to investigate the risks and stopped her younger son Hector from playing when he reached the level at which it became a contact sport.

She voices her surprise at being "stonewalled" and the struggle she faced in her quest to obtain data and statistics.

She writes: "I had thought it would be a relatively easy and rational exercise. My requests for information were polite and reasonable and I did not expect to be stonewalled.

"Nor did I expect to find reluctance on the part of the authorities and government to monitor injuries, or to discover that protecting the reputation of the game had a higher priority.

"But I was mistaken on all counts. The search for truth took my colleagues and me to the heart of the rugby establishment, with its close ties to government and industry, and to the centre of Scottish medicine and the University of Edinburgh."

A pilot study, commissioned by the then chief medical officer for Scotland and conducted by Ms Pollock and her colleagues in 2009, looked at the number of injuries in one season across six schools in Edinburgh.

It found a total of 37 injuries in 193 matches.

Of these, 20 required A&E attendance and 65 per cent of the injuries prevented further participation in the sport for three weeks or more.

A Rugby Football Union spokesman said: "Player safety and duty of care towards players is at the core of all the training we deliver to coaches, referees and medics.

"Like many recreational activities there is an element of injury risk in playing rugby, but we do not believe that this is disproportionate to other sports played by young people."

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