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You don’t have to be a student of Jonny Wilkinson’s medical history to know rugby is a violent game. Even so, an injury audit compiled over two English Premiership seasons between 2002 and 2004 and published last year includes some hair-raising statistics.
Each Premiership club suffered an average of 92 injuries a season, equivalent to nearly 2½ injuries per player. On average, nine out of 38 players at every club required treatment and rehabilitation for injuries each day. On average, each player spent 19 per cent of the calendar year injured.
The chance of sustaining an injury in a club match was put at 12.5 per cent. This is like saying the average Premiership game produced four injuries (with an injury recorded if it prevented a player from taking a full part in training and match play for more than 24 hours). At international level, the incidence of injury was more than twice as high at 29 per cent.
Dr Simon Kemp, head of sports medicine at the Rugby Football Union, who coded the injuries in the England team, said he was so assiduous that this is “probably an over-represent- ation” of the true risk. But it came as no surprise when my colleague Huw Richards took mere minutes to come up with a high-calibre Crocks XV prevented from being considered seriously for last weekend’s Six Nations matches.*
Now I don’t want to get hysterical about this. These are tough individuals. Though not in the Beckham class, they are pretty well paid and more intelligent than they look. The risks they run on the whole do not compare with, say, an infantryman in Basra. If they choose to make a living by knocking seven bells out of each other in the name of sport, who are we to take issue? This is not Formula One in the 1960s and 70s, a sport that buried its heroes with grim regularity.
And yet, quite apart from the sport’s and the players’ self interest, there are legitimate reasons why I think I am entitled to expect rugby to do its utmost to minimise this fearful toll. I can think of at least three of them.
As a fan, I want to see the best teams take the field. I doubt many All Black supporters wept salt tears at the absence of Lawrence Dallaglio and (for all but a minute) Brian O’Driscoll from the British and Irish Lions teams that were booted all over New Zealand last year. For me, though, watching Ireland without O’Driscoll is like having a ticket for the Berlin Philharmonic on Sir Simon Rattle’s day off.
As a taxpayer, I don’t want rugby injuries inflating state-funded health costs. There is little comparison between these 90kg musclemen crashing into each other at full pelt and the Old Peculiars’ 5th XV, still less the Dingley Dell Prep School Under-11s. But English schools and club rugby still reported nearly 17,000 serious injuries – defined as preventing “rugby activity” for 21 days or more – over the five years to 2002. Different worlds they may be but I am willing to bet that the more steps that are taken at elite level to bring injuries down, including more rule changes if necessary, the more injury rates would also fall lower down the rugby hierarchy.
I don’t know how much these 17,000 injuries – and the less serious ones – cost the NHS. I’d be surprised if anyone did. I do know that the cost of rugby injuries to New Zealand’s taxpayer- funded Accident Compensation Corporation was NZ$34.9m (£13.5m) in the year to June 30 2005. And, though rugby in All Black country has quasi-
religious status, there are about eight times as many registered players in England.
Most importantly, as a parent, too, I want to see the injury rate in schools and grass-roots rugby kept as low as possible, especially given how widely the sport is played and the severity of the injuries it can inflict. In 1997-2002, there were 14 injuries causing paralysis of all four limbs reported by English clubs and schools. In the previous five years, there had been 18. Clearly, there are huge differences between what constitutes acceptable risk for a grizzled pro, a recreational player and a schoolchild. Maybe the rules of the game at different levels need to be adjusted further to reflect this more clearly.
In fairness, the sport is not standing still. New Zealand has cut the number of injuries leaving players wheelchair-bound or severely brain-damaged from 10-12 to 1-2 per year. Dr Kemp says there has been a cut in catastrophic injuries related to scrum collapse, but not to scrum engagement or to tackles.
He outlines initiatives aimed at reducing instances of less serious injuries at the top of the English game and at accurately defining risk. “You can’t make rule changes until you can accurately attribute risk,” he says. “I think we are at a stage where we need to very rapidly gather the detailed evidence to support conjecture with fact.” With injury data being collected again this season, we should know by the end of the year whether these steps are having an impact.
* Huw Richards’ Crocks XV: K.Morgan (Wales); Lewsey (England), Jauzion (France), Barkley (England), Shanklin (Wales); Wilkinson (England), Cooper (Wales); Vickery (England), Sheahan (Ireland), Horsman (Wales); Charteris (Wales), Cockbain (Wales); Betsen (France), P.Sanderson (England), R.Jones (Wales).