We’re talking about human battering rams, powerfully crashing into one another in scrums, and flattening the guy with the ball in tackles. Every moment of the game counts, as does each hour, day, month and year of frenzied preparation.
Then comes the glory of victory in front of thousands of cheering fans. They walk off the field as heroes. Some are carried shoulder-high; the golden boys and gods of the game . . .
But as exciting as it is, rugby has a dark side: there’s always the risk of injury, paralysis and even loss of life.
It takes a strong, hard player with a powerful neck to take on 800kg of muscle and bone in a scrum, or to connect with a 120kg body without breaking or tearing something. If things go wrong and a head, arm or leg is hit at just the wrong angle or a little too hard, the body can give way, with serious consequences.
When even a seasoned player who trains correctly and prepares thoroughly can be injured in this way, it stands to reason that a schoolboy, whose muscles and bones are still developing, can be badly hurt.
What should you, as a parent, know and do to ensure your boy enjoys the game without getting seriously injured?
Dangerous rugby injuries
High tackles, scrums and loose scrums are the most dangerous aspects of the game as far as injury is concerned, but any movement that causes the neck to bend or turn unnaturally can be fatal.
Any flexion (forward movement) or extension (backward movement) with or without rotation is enough to shift or squash the cervical vertebrae. If a big guy tackles a little guy in this way, the action can have enough impact to break his neck.
Then there’s the head. One in every four rugby injuries is to the head and, of those, concussion and skull fractures are the worst.
Skull fractures can result in bits of bone piercing the brain or bruising brain tissue, which may cause a brain bleed and even death. Concussion occurs when a player takes a hard knock to the head or jaw, when two players run into one another, or when the head is snapped sideways.
A hard blow can cause the brain to slam against the skull. It then bounces back and hits the other side of the skull, which can make nerve cells tear and cause damage to blood vessels. This causes achain reaction in the brain: the damaged bits need more nutrients such as glucose but because of decreased blood flow there are actually less oxygen and nutrients available. The result is swelling and further damage.
Although concussions are usually not life-threatening, they’re certainly dangerous.
Too much, too soon
For young rugby players there are also many risks off the field. The desire of many young boys to build muscle drives them to train with weights that are far too heavy for their muscles and frames.
Boys’ skeletons and muscles develop rapidly between the ages of 12 and 17, and teenagers often complain of cramps and pains in their legs. Excessive or incorrect exercise puts them at risk of two types of serious injury: growth plate fractures and avulsion fractures.
Growth plate refers to bone growth in the bone itself. If a child breaks an arm or leg in the growth plate, it constitutes a serious, irreversible injury that never heals. Further bone growth will not be normal and the child could develop a deformity – for example, one leg could be longer than the other.
Incorrect exercise, such as resistance exercises, can cause avulsion fractures. This is when the muscles develop faster than they can attach to the bone and a bit of the bone is literally torn away because the muscles haven’t attached properly. An injury such as this can be serious enough to end a child’s sports career for good.
A note on supplements
Another danger which rugby-mad teens are exposed to – especially in gyms – is the use of anabolic steroids and protein supplements.
Steroids are popular because they shorten the rest period needed between workouts. Kids can therefore train more and build muscle faster. The flip-side is that steroids can be life-threatening if used incorrectly. And protein supplements can cause kidney damage if used in excess.
A combination of wholesome, nutritious foods and the right kind of exercise should be all your child needs to become a better rugby player.
The good news
Rugby can certainly be a dangerous sport if the right precautions aren’t taken to prevent injury and disease.
But playing rugby has definite benefits. It builds character, teaches kids to work together and develops leadership qualities. Kids also learn to set goals and be motivated – all of which will help them later in life.
So, by all means, encourage your child to fulfil his dream of playing for the Wallabies. Just give him the guidance he needs to walk off the field unscathed, every time.
Tips for rugby parents
- Make sure your child trains with an experienced rugby coach.
- Check if the school or club where your boy trains has proper first-aid measures in place.
- Emergency treatment and equipment should always be available next to the field.
- Make sure your child plays rugby with children of a similar physical size. This is more important than age.
- Check that the coach conforms to the necessary standards and that the kids do exercises to strengthen their neck muscles.
- Don’t allow your kids to participate in rugby too early – not before they’re six or seven years old. Rather let them strengthen their little bodies first, for example with wrestling. This exposes them to physical contact in a controlled way, while allowing them to develop self-confidence and strength.
- Is your child keen to train in the gym? Have your boy evaluated by a biokineticist to prevent him from embarking on a training programme that could hurt him.
- Ensure that muscle-building happens incrementally over a long period of time, with the help of an experienced trainer.
- Always give injuries enough time to heal before allowing your child to play again.
- Any neck injury sustained while playing rugby should be taken seriously, and X-rays should always be taken.
- A stiff neck, pins and needles in the limbs and other signs of paralysis should immediately be investigated by a health professional.
- Keep an eye out for typical symptoms of concussion, e.g. disorientation, memory loss, headache, dizziness, nausea, drowsiness, loss of balance, ringing in the ears and seeing stars or double vision.
- If your child has mild concussion, he should rest for at least three weeks before playing again. This gives his extremely vulnerable brain a chance to heal.
- If your child sustains concussion twice in one season, he shouldn’t play again that season – and if it happens three times the brain needs to rest for an entire year, even if a CT or MRI scan doesn’t show any damage.
- Watch out for fad diets, steroid use and other ‘performance enhancing’ substances. Rather encourage your child to follow a healthy, balanced diet.
- Don’t push your boy too hard.
- Teach him to simply have fun and enjoy the game!