Game calls for rule changes to halt injury surge

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The Independent Online

Injuries – particularly those in the knee and hamstring categories – are on the increase: up by a fifth on last season, according to the latest instalment of the Rugby Football Union's ground-breaking audit of problems affecting elite players in England. But knees and hamstrings are, in the final analysis, some way down the list of the sport's worries, if not the least of them. The serious concern surrounds the potential for catastrophic incidents at the tackle area, which senior figures associated with the audit believe needs urgent attention from the law-makers.

"We have players coming in like Exocet missiles, going in without any regard for their own safety, let alone the safety of their opponents," said Damian Hopley, the chief executive of the Rugby Players' Association. "How long will it be before something really bad happens? Players have to be protected from themselves to a degree, because they are willing to run through brick walls. The law-makers must start looking at the medical data or there will be no one left playing the game. We need some joined-up thinking."

The latest figures relate to the 2008-09 campaign and show there were 119 more injuries in the highest echelons of the English professional game than in the previous season. However, statistics eventually drawn from this current season are likely to show an even greater spike, thanks to a much-criticised change in the ruck law that allows tacklers to continue playing the ball with their hands at the breakdown.

"Players feel increasingly strongly about the growing incidence and severity of injuries," Hopley continued. "We all accept rugby is a collision sport and that injuries are part and parcel, an occupational hazard. But we have to understand why things are on the increase. This audit is a tangible piece of work containing hard fact and data, rather than a lot of anecdotal evidence. It's a valuable contribution, because concern is growing. The game has a duty of care to its players. Do we really want to go down the road of people having hip replacements at 29?"

If law changes are to be informed by medical data, there need to be findings from around the world, rather than from around the shires of a single country. "Maybe it's time for the International Board [the game's supreme governing body] to grasp the nettle, to lead from the front," said Phil Winstanley, the rugby director at Premier Rugby, the body representing England's leading clubs.

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