Growing evidence of the links between rugby and early onset dementia have led to renewed calls for collision rugby to be banned in schools.
Health experts and a former player said they would not want their own children playing rugby in schools in its current form.
Graham Kirkwood, from the Institute of Health at Newcastle University, urged England’s governing body, the RFU, to ban tackles, rucks and mauls from the game.
He also said schools should stop making rugby compulsory for pupils. Kirkwood, who has conducted extensive research on rugby injuries, told the Guardian: “I would not want my children playing rugby in school in its current collision form. I would advise other parents to think the same.
“As the rules stand at the moment it shouldn’t be played in schools. The collision elements of rugby should be removed – that is, the tackle, and the ruck and maul, but mainly tackles.”
The warning comes after the Guardian revealed that eight former players, all under the age of 45, are considering legal action after being diagnosed with early onset dementia. They include Steve Thompson, who now says he cannot remember winning the World Cup for England in 2003.
Richard Bernard, the headteacher at Thompson’s former school, Northampton School for Boys (NSB), said: “The school was very upset to hear of the news concerning Steve Thompson. NSB takes the issue of player safety very seriously and has always carefully applied the guidance from the RFU with regards to the safety and wellbeing of the students.”
Kirkwood pointed out that the RFU has useful guidance on dealing with concussion, but its safety advice does not address the central concern about the damage rugby tackles do to the brain.
He said: “The RFU guidance is mainly about dealing with concussion after the event. It is all secondary prevention, there is no primary prevention of head injuries or the concussions happening in the first place. Dealing with concussion is important but it is not enough.”
A source at the school said it always sought to draw on advice from health and safety consultants, Department for Education advice in addition to sporting bodies themselves, and any recent research or medical advances.
Kirkwood said schools needed to examine the research and make up their own minds. He called for an overhaul of rugby in schools, saying: “There needs to be a rethink about those rules … If the game can’t go out without collision, then it’s got problems, but there are other forms of rugby – touch rugby and tag rugby.”
He also cited soon-to-be-published research from Oxford Brookes University which showed that rugby is compulsory in nine out of 10 schools where it is played. “It should be made voluntary,” he said.
Jamie Johnston, a former player for Harlequins, Bath and Bristol, and now director of co-curriculum and athletics at the International School in Egham, said he was “very” worried about the links between dementia and rugby. He banned collision rugby at the school last year and replaced it with touch rugby.
He said: “I would not allow my own children to play and I cannot, in good conscience, encourage schoolchildren to play the game in its current form. I feel very conflicted because rugby has obviously been a big part of my life. It was a great passion of mine.
“However, I am now convinced that, while there was a time when the game was much safer, the physical capacity of contemporary players, the comprehensive strategic understanding of the coaches and the reticence to effectively address player safety on behalf of administrators, have resulted in a very dangerous modern game.”
In a statement the RFU said: “The RFU takes player welfare very seriously and it is at the heart of our training delivered to coaches, referees and medics at all levels of the game. Rugby exists in schools and clubs in different forms, both contact and non-contact and there is a significant difference between rugby played by young people compared to the adult professional game.
“While there is an element of risk to playing any sport, the RFU rules ensure maximum possible safety for children, allowing players the time to learn rugby basics before contact is gradually introduced. Playing rugby provides significant physical and mental health benefits.”