Rugby is a fast-paced, hard-hitting sport — something apparent even to casual observers — but people in the rugby community are adamant that safety and preparedness go hand-in-hand with rucks and scrums.
That’s why the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation’s decision to cancel high school rugby in the province struck a nerve with Rugby Canada, the sport’s national governing body, which said neither they nor Rugby Nova Scotia was consulted about this decision.
Despite the provincial education minister ordering the federation to reinstate the sport, the manner in which the initial decision was made alarmed Rugby Canada officials as well as devotees of the sport.
“I’m sure the intentions was good; anybody who’s governing a sport does want to protect their athletes,” said Tim Powers, the chair of Rugby Canada’s board of governors. “But the actioning of it without doing the due diligence is wrong.”
Powers said if the federation had “bothered to call us or our partners in Nova Scotia, I think they would have had a more informed way of looking at the sport and its management in Nova Scotia.”
The Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation cited data from the province’s school insurance program that said there have been 149 “recorded incidents” of concussions over the past five years, compared to 33 in hockey, 32 in football and 26 in soccer.
“We’ve got some questions about the validity of the data,” said Paul Hunter, Rugby Canada’s interim director of rugby development.
In fact, statistics collected by the federal government suggest that from 2011-2017, there were twice as many concussions reported among boys aged 15 to 19 playing hockey compared to rugby. There were 306 reported concussions suffered by girls in that age and date range playing rugby compared to 259 for hockey players.
<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/NSSAF?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#NSSAF</a> rugby decisions in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/NS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#NS</a> should be made in consultation w/ parents, players, coaches & medical experts. Let’s rewind, get our kids back on the pitch today, and work together to find the right balance between safety & activity tomorrow. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetUsPlay?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LetUsPlay</a> 🇨🇦 🏉
There’s no getting away from the fact that rugby is a contact sport, and Hunter knows that there are inherent risks, but he gleans a different lesson from increased concussion reporting.
“We actually see it as a positive that we’re seeing an increase in the number of reported potential injuries,” said Hunter, who oversees Rugby Canada PlaySmart. “There may be some under-reporting in other sports, and that’s where we want to be able to have a discussion about the data that’s being presented.”
The problem with under-reporting injuries
The idea of under-reported injuries, especially head injuries, is something Hunter has discussed with representatives of other sports.
“We’ve tried to work very hard in our sport to ensure that reporting a concussion isn’t a sign of weakness,” he said. “It’s an injury; like most injuries it’s recoverable with the appropriate treatment.”
“The message that this decision sends out to young adults in high schools — if you report your injuries, then you risk your sport being taken away — it just doesn’t seem to be the right approach,” he said.
“We have a responsibility to create a safe environment in sport, and we need to work together to ensure that we minimize risks within sport.”
It’s a lesson that, unfortunately, was learned through tragedy.
“We have seen in Ontario, after serious incidents, people have come together to make sport safer,” Powers said.
He’s referring to Rowan’s Law, concussion safety legislation adopted in Ontario last year that’s designed to protect amateur athletes and educate coaches about the dangers of head injuries. It’s named in memory of 17-year-old Rowan Stringer, who died in 2013 after sustaining multiple concussions in a week playing rugby.
Powers suggested the Nova Scotia federation look at the protections in Rowan’s Law.
In 2015, he co-wrote a column in the Ottawa Citizen with Canadian rugby Hall of Famer Al Charron when reports emerged that school boards in the Ottawa area wanted to ban the sport following Stringer’s death. “It would be an emotional reaction to a very sad story about a wonderful young woman who was taken from her family, friends and community far too early,” they wrote at the time and stand by.
“As Rowan Stringer’s parents themselves have said, banning rugby is not something their daughter would have wanted.”
‘Talk to us, please’
Jack Hanratty knows the impact high school rugby has in Nova Scotia, especially for young women. He’s seen it while coaching in the province as well as with the national under-20 women’s squad.
He calls the high school game a “stepping stone” to potential university scholarships and the chance to represent Canada internationally, but it also “a sense of belonging for an athlete that maybe didn’t have a team before.”
“Rugby is a place for all, it’s for all shapes and sizes,” Hanratty said.
Watch Hanratty criticize the high school ban:
Powers echoed this sentiment, and was heartened by the reaction from the Canadian rugby community rallying around Nova Scotia.
“You have people who actually do play the game, who administer the game, whose kids are in the game who say. ‘Look, we actually know what’s happening, talk to us please,'” he said.
“Instead of dashing the dreams of young people, we think there’s a constructive way to address all of this.”
This story originally appeared on CBC