World Rugby has criticised the claims in a study calling for tackling and scrums to be banned in school sport.
Allyson Pollock and Graham Kirkwood from the Institute of Health at Newcastle University argued in the British Medical Journal that most injuries in youth rugby occur due to the collision elements of the game.
The pair called for “harmful contact” to be prohibited on school playing fields. Removing collision from school rugby is likely to “reduce and mitigate the risk of injury” in pupils, they said.
However, in a statement, the sport’s governing body questioned the data on which the claims were based.
“World Rugby and its member unions take player safety very seriously and proactively pursue an evidence-based approach to reduce the risk of injury at all levels,” the statement said.
“These claims are not based on like-for-like injury statistics and the conclusions are not supported by the available data.
“It is well documented that, for most sports, injury rates increase with age, but the quoted research mixes 9-12 with 18-20 age groups.
“Indeed, within the published studies where injury has been properly defined and monitored, suggest the risk for pre-teens is not unacceptably high compared to other popular sports.”
Pollock and Kirkwood called on the UK chief medical officers to advise the British government to remove harmful contact from the game.
But Pollock, who has been researching injuries and rugby injuries for more than 10 years, and senior research associate Kirkwood said that under United Nations conventions, governments have a “duty to protect children from risks of injury”.
“We call on the chief medical officers to act on the evidence and advise the UK government to put the interests of the child before those of corporate professional rugby unions and remove harmful contact from the school game,” they wrote.
“Most injures in youth rugby are because of the collision elements of the game, mainly the tackle.
“In March 2016, scientists and doctors from the Sport Collision Injury Collective called for the tackle and other forms of harmful contact to be removed from school rugby. The data in support of the call is compelling.”
That call was rejected by a range of former players and officials working within the game as well as World Rugby, however.
Dr Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist who has been working in the field of brain injury for more than 15 years and sits on World Rugby’s Concussion Advisory Body, tweeted: “The health crisis facing Britain’s children is not #concussion but obesity and lack of exercise.”
Peter Robinson, the father of Ben Robinson, who died at 14 from second impact syndrome following a school game, and who worked with Stewart in helping to inspire a change in concussion guidelines, added on Twitter: “Banning tackling at schools not the answer. Mismanagement of Concussion is the greatest risk in the game.”
Citing previous research into sports injuries in youngsters, Pollock and Kirkwood had argued in the article that rugby, along with ice hockey and American football, have the highest concussion rates.
They said that rule changes in collision sports can make a difference, highlighting the Canadian ban on “body checking” – where a player deliberately makes contact with an opposing player – in ice hockey for under 13 year olds.
Meanwhile, in the UK “teacher training in the skills of rugby are lacking, as is concussion awareness training,” the pair wrote.
The researchers called on the UK chief medical officers to advise the British government to remove harmful contact from the game. They pointed to a history of concussion being associated with the “lowering of a person’s life chances” across a number of measures including low educational achievement and premature death. Meanwhile, a head injury is linked to an increased risk of dementia.
Commenting on the article, Prof Tara Spires-Jones, UK Dementia Research Institute programme lead and deputy director of the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Very strong, reproducible evidence supports a greater risk of dementia in people who have head injuries in their lifetimes, which urges caution in games where there is a significant risk of head injury.
“However, the data on specifically whether playing rugby or other contact sports in school increases your risk of dementia are not as robust yet due to a lack of large prospective studies. It is also very clear that there are many health risks of leading a sedentary lifestyle.”