Ban the scrum, says top rugby coach

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The Independent Online

A former coach of one of the world's great rugby teams has called for the scrum to be scrapped as concerns mount over the number of severe injuries plaguing the game.

More than 100 players registered on the books of Britain's Rugby Football Union (RFU) have suffered paralysing injuries as a result of the game. And every year there are more than 36,000 school rugby injuries. Dozens of them are serious, and some players are left paralysed for life.

A collapsed scrum - the manoeuvre where players from the two sides lock in what are best described as opposing, heads-down battering rams - is one of the chief causes of serious injury. So concerned are the game's most powerful figures that some of them will gather in South Africa to consider the future of one of its trademarks. Many believe that a fundamental change is needed.

The former leading coach who now thinks the scrum is far too dangerous for the game's good is Alan Jones, who trained the Australian national team during the 1980s. He said: "Perhaps the game has to think about getting rid of the scrum altogether." He added that as the ball rarely changed hands as a result of the scrum, it was debatable whether it was worth subjecting bodies to its stresses and strains. "If the team in possession before the scrum is the team in possession after the scrum, then why submit the body to that kind of risk?"

Matt Hampson's family needs no reminding of the life-shattering perils of the scrum. The Leicester prop forward has been lying paralysed in hospital for the past year after a scrum collapsed, injuring his neck. While he can expect to receive about £1.2m under the terms of the RFU's insurance policy, it is estimated that to look after him for the rest of his life will cost between £6m and £8m.

Ali Johnson is another scrum victim. He was the subject of a BBC documentary, after his battle to come to terms with being confined to a wheelchair. He appealed last night for the game's governing body to take the issue seriously.

"There is a case for banning the scrum," he said. "It'd take a lot away from the game, but it should be looked at because players are becoming so much stronger."

Senior figures will gather tomorrow at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and contemplate what needs to be done. Bill Nolan, a member of the International Rugby Board council, admitted that "everything was up for grabs".

Mr Nolan acknowledged that as the IRB considers making changes, it is looking at countries, such as Scotland and Ireland, which have been experimenting with watering down the amount of physical combat in the scrum.

A number of extreme injuries have left coaches, players and medics urging an overhaul of the scrum. Fears are growing that with the introduction of professionalism a decade ago, a gruelling fixture schedule, and a new breed of bigger players, the scrum has become more dangerous.

In particular, concerns have been expressed over poor coaching and refereeing that is leaving young players unable to make the leap to the senior game and exposed to a greater risk of being badly hurt. There are 110 players registered on the RFU's books who have suffered serious injury involving paralysis in some form as a result of playing rugby.

Medical experts have warned that an increasing number of young players are suffering from early arthritis and spinal problems that render them unable to carry out simple tasks such as tying shoelaces or feeding themselves.

The Medical Journal of Australia found that seven of 23 rugby players who had acute spinal cord injury between 1997 and 2002 had been hurt in the scrum. The study concluded that there was now "good reason to revise the laws of scrum engagement in rugby union".

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