When my boys were playing school rugby I hated going to their home or away matches.
In truth I was too terrified to watch them play because I feared they would suffer severe injuries.
Those matches I did attend were an ordeal for me. When they went down under a scrum or a tackle I would turn my back in case I would have to witness them not getting up again.
My sons were tall – both grew to over 6 feet tall – and I should have worried less than I did. It seemed to be the smaller players who suffered most. It was terrible to watch a group of players rise from the ground leaving one lying prostrate on the grass.
Mostly the injured would have risen and chosen to play on unless the injury was too bad for them to continue. In those days I was of the opinion that players could be more appropriately matched physically.
The bigger, tougher players were often those found in the top grammar schools, schools which have been consistently successful in the Schools Cup for decades. Yet some of the best players were the wiry, lighter and shorter boys playing out on the wing. Clearly the game needed both kinds of players and there was no shortage of boys wanting to play.
I know of school boy players who’ve had to undergo fairly serious operations as a result of injury.
A handful of Ulster school players with spinal injuries ended up in wheelchairs. When my son was in Musgrave Park Hospital needing a knee operation I discussed schoolboy rugby and its dangers with the consultant at the time. He was convinced the game was far too dangerous and needed to be made safer. That was 30 years ago and still this game is controversial with health experts now of the view there should be a total ban on tackling in schools’ rugby.
The Ulster and Irish rugby authorities reject this. Undoubtedly over the years they’ve paid a lot of attention to safety in the game and have made some changes. The rules on head injuries are strict and a mere sign of concussion means a player is taken off the pitch now.
In their letter to the Government more than 70 doctors and health experts list a catalogue of injuries and suggest schools should move to touch rugby and non-contact rugby because ‘‘serious injuries in such young people can have short-term, life-long, and life-ending consequences for children’’.
Put that way, who would not be calling for major change in the game? I know of parents who’ve had to spend small fortunes on private medical care and physiotherapy for their injured rugby playing sons because the NHS system was too slow to provide proper care. It’s entirely possible that the cost of treating the injured of school boy rugby is something the cash-strapped NHS could do without.
The problem for lots of young rugby players is what to do when they have to give it up once they leave school. There would appear to be genuine withdrawal symptoms where some of them will go to any length to extend their rugby career. The dream of being Jonny Wilkinson, Andrew Trimble or Rory Best is strong but in truth only a very small number of boys make it to the top. Sadly many of them are left with shattered dreams and injuries which may dog them for life. It begs the question, is rugby character building? I have no doubt it is but maybe the price is too high.