After Covid, how much rugby should children play?

When this Covid pandemic finishes, you might be thinking about which sports will be best for your child. Well, rugby is clearly enjoyable for many people, and is helpful for fitness and socializing (though of course most other children’s sport have similar benefits). Rugby, apparently, has also been “building character since 1823“, according to the global governing body.

But if you are thinking about encouraging your child to play rugby, do consider this new research which shows an alarming rate of concussion (brain trauma / brain injury) in school students who play rugby. In a study of 416 New Zealand high school rugby players, the findings indicated that 69% of players had sustained a suspected concussionduring their playing of the sport at school. Did you read that properly? 69%? Really? Does that seem high?

You may be shocked at these stats. And if you’re a staunch rugby defender, you may be very skeptical about this research. Let’s go through some potential issues:

You might think it was done by biased researchers with an anti-rugby, anti-risk agenda. But, actually, of the 8 researchers involved, 4 work for New Zealand Rugby, including the “lead” researcher. The other 4 researchers work for various universities.

You might think the children are exaggerating when reporting their brain injuries. But actually, we can infer the number of concussions could be even higher than the reported figure, for two reasons. First, the researchers state: “NZ Rugby has a mandated 21 or 23-day stand-down period if a player has been removed for a suspected concussion depending on their age. While this policy prevents players with a suspected concussion from returning which is an important safety consideration, it may also have the detrimental side effect of increasing nondisclosure in players.”
Second, the researchers state “the responses of the current sample may not include the characteristics of players who have withdrawn from rugby participation due to concussions or the risk of possible concussions.” So for anyone who thinks the 69% is overstating the issue, it might reasonably be that 69% is an understatement.

You might think the “suspected” concussions reported by the participants weren’t always diagnosed by a doctor – it was sometimes only the children’s views about specific concussion symptoms. Well, 31% of participants did receive a medical diagnosis of concussion, which is still very high, right? So should we give the benefit of the doubt to the other children and adolescents who participated in the research? We may as well, right?

You might be angry about this perceived attack on one of the great sports in [insert your country here : ) ]. If so, have a chat to children who you know and see what they think about this research.

You might not be able to access the article because you’re not at a university and it’s behind a paywall. If that’s the case, you could email the researchers to inquire about a free copy! Or pay the journal £34 to get access to the article! Or lobby the government that you as a (probable) tax payer, deserve access to research conducted on school children by sports organisations and universities!

To conclude …

Should we agree that no matter how fun and “character building” an activity is, if it imposes a 69% concussion rate risk during a student’s schooling, there should be some serious reviews? If you disagree, what’s your “acceptable risk”? Is 50% of children having a traumatic brain injury acceptable? Or 49%? I wonder what percentage of the children themselves think is tolerable when it come to traumatic brain injury in school sport.

Joe P

This Green and Sedent Land: A New Sport Policy for England

Having lived in the UK for a few years now, I have witnessed a near constant cascade of physical activity policies. In 2014, the UK Government wrote “Move More Living More”, a short document aimed at salvaging something of the Olympic participation legacy. Later that year, Public Health England’s “Everybody Active Everyday” was published, which tried to take an “evidence based approach” and inspire radical change in “this green and sedent land” (to butcher Blake’s famous line).

More recently, in late 2015, the DCMS published “Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation”. This contained a clear directive to merge sport with health and economic outcomes. And now we are presented with Sport England’s “Towards an Active Nation”. One might think with such an array of organisations and such a compendium of policy statements, the country would be on its way to health, wellbeing and fitness. Of course, I sincerely hope that change occurs. And it looks like the most recent policy offers some significant concrete solutions.

The images

To judge a policy by its cover and imagery, the most striking thing about the Towards an Active Nation is that it doesn’t look anything like a traditional “sport” strategy. The images include

– a couple of girls running in a forest

– a group of young people paddling on a misty lake

– a woman in a field with a rounders bat

– a couple of older adults playing badminton

– a young woman playing wheelchair basketball

– a coach with a young athlete at an athletics track

– a group of older women in an informal running group

– a group of young boys at an indoor climbing wall

– a group of young students being coached in football

– a young girl playing social tennis


There is very little imagery of competitive traditional sports. A traditionalist might ask Where is the cricket!? The rugby!? The Olympic athletes!? The role models!? The images make us imagine a nation with all manner of outdoor landscapes, with diverse participants enjoying non-adversarial, non-competitive activities. The pictures subtly move the reader away from the traditional English sports and towards a Scandinavian model of “sport”, a perceived utopia where traditional sport is just one aspect of an active life.

So how does this new policy aim to get there?

Well, there will be a massive restructure of funding. Pie charts on pages 16 and 17 are revealing. Two charts are presented, one of the previous funding allocation, and the projected investment. Confirming some of the pre-release rumours, it looks like NGBs will be sweating even more than they usually are, with their funding becoming even more contested.


The Words 

The core “outcomes” (or values) emphasised in the document are physical / mental wellbeing, individual, social, community and / or economic development. The policy appears unequivocal in how it will decide on funding. It can be boiled down to this quote:

“whether an organisation receives public funding should be based on what it can contribute to the outcomes …. not on its nature or structure. Put simply, it’s what you can do that counts, not who you are.” (p. 12, bold in original)

And so what changes might we expect in the sport sector? Well, key word searches are revealing. “Change” is mentioned 31 times, “New” – 72 times and “Funding” – 33 times. So the new change to the funding is based around organisations’ potential to achieve the “outcomes”. This will mean that organisations around the country will be auditing themselves to reflect on what they offer and how their offering could be attached to the outcomes.

Picking on one in particular, I suspect “economic development” has not been high on the list for most sport organisations, nor has it been emphasised in previous strategies. “Customer” is mentioned 32 times. And so I think business orientations and commercial incentives might become more important very soon. Sport England states:

WE WILL … Provide insight, advice and funding to those who deliver to regular players, focusing on customer needs and delivering excellent experiences.” (p. 27)

Maybe I have not kept up with the fluidity of language, but I can’t help but think of “customers” as a term which is a bit too business-like, a bit too corporate. A search of the old Sport England’s “Creating a Sporting Habit for Life” reveals zero instances of the word “customer”. So not only are sport organisations being reframed, so are people. What might the effects of this be I wonder? Time will tell!

Lastly, I see that the policy is guided by “behaviour change theory”. In a nutshell, this assumes people do not have a sporting habit for life. And so something which had been the catch-cry of Sport England for 5 years, will need to be unlearnt. Pragmatically, I wonder how difficult it is for people in an organisation to change the basic assumptions of their work. As Sport England note, this will require some change for the organisation as well. I wish them good luck!