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Rugby has an injury problem, but switching schools to non-contact is not a solution

TO judge from some of the exchanges on her Twitter feed and from her admirably combative defence of the NHS as a public institution, it seems pretty clear that Professor Allyson Pollock has no objection to a good scrap.

Which is all rather ironic, for she has some strong opinions on the matter of others getting involved in such things.

Specifically, Professor Pollock, a former director of Edinburgh University's Centre for Public Health Policy, has been voicing her reservations about schools rugby, which she has taken to portraying as an area of such carnage and mayhem that excruciating pain, broken bones, twisted limbs and permanent disfigurement are all but inevitable for anyone foolish enough to take part. An exaggeration, perhaps, but made in the knowledge that Professor Pollock is not above the same kind of thing herself.

After all, in the wake of her participation in a joint study into injuries in schools rugby that was published four years ago, she was widely quoted as saying that scrums and "high tackles" should be banned from that level of the game. Yet no sooner had she aired her opinions through various media outlets than she was given a stinging rebuke by Dr Alastair Nicol, of the same university's Fitness Assessment and Sports injury Centre, who made it clear that her views were not supported by the data produced by the project. Inconveniently, if rather less well reported at the time, Dr Nicol just happened to be the lead author of the study.

Now there is no question whatsoever that Professor Pollock is an academic of some distinction. One of her more obvious distinctions is that she promotes her work through a personal website, a rare thing in academic circles, but let's leave her enthusiasm for self-advertisement to one side for the moment. For in the days and weeks ahead, she will be having plenty of help on that front anyway as her new book, Tackling Rugby: What Every Parent Should Know, is making waves throughout the sport with its - you guessed it - calls for scrums and tackles to be banished.

Now it would be nice to think that Professor Pollock, now at Queen Mary's University in London, had pushed things on a little but, as far as I can gather from what I have read and heard to date, the statistical analysis of injuries still seems to rely heavily on the 2010 study. And as her use of what was revealed by that exercise has already been called into question, we have every right to view her latest work with a certain degree of scepticism.

But not so much that we should be blinded by it. For as much as I may harbour doubts about Professor Pollock's motives and methods, I have just as many reservations about a rugby establishment that has, for too long, closed ranks around the issue of injuries in the game. There is, at best, a culture of defensiveness in rugby circles when the subject come up. At worst, there is outright denial.

That much has become clear over the past 18 months as the sport has finally, and belatedly, begun to address the matter of concussion. However, progress on that front only started to happen after a couple of high-profile incidents in major games. In the first, in July last year, the great Australian flanker George Smith was sent back on to the field just five minutes after being knocked out cold in a clash of heads with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard; in the second, Toulouse centre Florian Fritz was ordered to play on in a club match against Racing Metro despite being so far away with the fairies he might as well have worn a tutu.

The presence of TV cameras made it clear that something had to change. Would that they had been there when Irish schoolboy Benjamin Robson turned out at centre for Carrickfergus Grammar School against Dalriada in an under-15 match in 2011. Benjamin took a number of heavy tackles, but stayed on the pitch despite the concerns of family members on the touchline. Eventually, after one more hit, he lost consciousness. He was taken to hospital and placed on life support, but died soon afterwards.

Six months later, the pathologist's report said he had died of Second-impact syndrome, the swelling of the brain caused by successive concussions.

Had he been taken off the pitch after the first blow he would probably be alive today. "Concussion can be fatal," said his grief-stricken father the other day. "I have the death certificate to prove it."

The recent spotlight on concussion has brought other examples to light. Most insidiously, perhaps, has been the spate of cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (ECT) a degenerative brain disease that leads to memory problems, personality swings and a general slowing-down of movement. For most sufferers, it does not reveal itself until middle age.

In other words, round about the time that all the knee, hip and shoulder problems are kicking in as well. It is one of the privileges of my line of work that I get to meet so many of the players who were my heroes as a youth - but it is one of the more disturbing facets that so many of them are shuffling and shambling through life, joints shot to pieces, long before their time.

Yet I'll still stand up for this game. And so, too, will almost all of those old players. For whatever the censorious finger-waggers and professional tut-tutters might tell them, they will still counter with the argument that rugby had added much more to their lives than it has ever taken away. And who are we to question that point of view?

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Education

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