Rugby is starting up again after the Covid-19 hiatus. The final weekend of the Six Nations is usually a big one for my friends, we book a table in the pub and meet for a marathon of rugby and revels. Of course, with the new lockdown in the UK that didn’t happen. But we welcomed the resumption of matches all the same.

I enjoyed many contact sports until a football match led to a mild brain injury. Now, I no longer play and sometimes struggle over whether I can still enjoy them as a spectator. A rule change to tackle height in 2018 was intended to reduce the incidence of concussion in the game. One of the things that reassured me was that these changes were based on research using the approved scientific method.

Research trials

It seems there are now questions over the conduct of a trial which looked into the effects of a lower limit to legal rugby tackles. In 2018, World Rugby stopped a trial into a lower tackle line after there was evidence of increased concussion in players. So far, so good. However, in August this year an article in the NRTimes reported there may be safety and ethical issues over the running of the trial.

The NRTimes article quotes a series of tweets by Dr. Adam White, a lecturer and researcher in the field of Sport Education and Health. There were questions over informed consent of the participants and in the framing of the trial at the ethics stage. Sadly, I do not have subscription access to the paper on the trial which is at BMJ Journals.

Dr White’s twitter thread does share screenshots from the paper and explains the reasons behind his concerns. Both Dr White and NRTimes note that World Rugby have been contacted for comment, but I haven’t seen a response in the last three months, do let me know if I have missed it.

Ducking the controversy

I admit it, I’m reluctant to go any further in explaining the trial and queries over it. Partly that is because I would just be covering the same ground as both the article and Twitter feed. But also because I’m reluctant to draw a conclusion without access to the paper. It does give me pause over whether I can still enjoy the Autumn Internationals this year.

I think the best quote to leave the story on is from Dr White:

“All efforts to make our game safer must be taken. But research, particularly intervention/trials, must be conducted ethically ensuring participants give full, informed consent and can withdraw without prejudice or penalty.”

This was not the only headline regarding the safety of rugby players this autumn. The news that rugby players had risked their health, and the health of others, by ducking Covid-19 rules before a match filled many pages, virtual and paper, in October. This was easy to decide on, and I’m sure that many fans were deeply disappointed by the behaviour.

Speaking of ducks

When you compare that behaviour to the efforts which went into ensuring that two series of international cricket could be played in England this year, then rugby’s attitude to safety is easily questioned.

Players, officials, commentators, media, ground and hotel staff spent weeks in ‘Covid-19 bubbles’to ensure that cricket would be played at a time when fans really needed the distraction and normality. The Pakistan and West Indies cricket teams and officials travelled at a very uncertain time and spent weeks in quarantine to ensure the matches could be played in a safe environment. Despite the challenges, it was a fantastic summer of cricket which was hugely appreciated.

Another example of cricket’s attitude to player safety can be seen in the reaction to the death of Phillip Hughes, an international cricketer. He died as a result of an incredibly rare incident, a fast ball striking his neck. Helmets fitted with neck guards were common place at all levels of cricket within weeks.

However, the wearing of a helmet is still not a legal requirement in cricket matches. That decision is left with the player. This means we must continue to raise awareness of brain injury so that participants in all sports can make an informed decision about their safety.

Click here find out more about support available for brain injury survivors during the pandemic. To see what you can do to raise awareness of brain injury, take a look at Headway UK’s campaign page.