PEI

Player safety always paramount says Rugby Canada following recent death

The death of Montague, P.E.I., student Brodie McCarthy has ignited discussion about head injuries in rugby.

'We all have a responsibility that our players play in a safe environment'

Brodie McCarthy died after sustaining a head injury in a high school rugby tournament. (Submitted by Montague Regional High School)

The death of Montague, P.E.I., student Brodie McCarthy has ignited discussion about head injuries in rugby.

The Grade 12 student was just weeks from graduating when he was playing in the David Voye Memorial rugby tournament in Summerside last week. He sustained a head injury in what has been described as "a normal rugby play," though he collapsed shortly afterwards and later died after surgery in hospital in Moncton. 

Paul Hunter, the manager of national coach development with Rugby Canada, told CBC News although deaths in sport are a "rare occurrence," it's important to ensure that the risk of fatal injuries are as minimal as possible.

"We need to have a joint approach, as parents, players, sports organizations, schools and match officials. We all have a responsibility that our players play in a safe environment," he said.

We don't think that concussion education and player welfare is something you should do once.— Paul Hunter

Part of minimizing those risks, he said, is through proper concussion training. It's mandatory for all club-level coaches and referees to complete a concussion management program annually. Although Rugby Canada doesn't have authority over schools.

"We work closely with our school boards through our provincial unions but we are not able to mandate training and education for high schools," he said.

Head injuries in rugby

The online training provided by Rugby Canada provides information on what a concussion is, signs and symptoms, principles around removal from the game and the gradual return to play process.

"The data tells us that we do not have as many head injuries in rugby as perhaps hockey and football," Hunter said.

According to data from the Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program, on the federal government's website, between 2012-2014 players aged 15-19 sustained 449 brain injuries playing rugby.

Among boys 15-19, the data showed rugby had the third highest number of brain injuries behind ice hockey and football. For girls the same age, rugby had the fourth highest number of brain injuries, behind soccer, basketball and hockey.

Would wearing helmets or scrum caps help?

Not necessarily, Hunter said.

"We have not yet been presented, or found evidence to suggest that head gear can prevent concussions," he said.

Sports that have head gear still have concussion related injuries."

The danger in introducing helmets to a sport, Hunter said, is that in other sports when young kids put helmets on they might think they're "a little bit more invincible" and would do things with their head that they wouldn't necessarily do if they didn't have a helmet.

'Questions should be asked around what do clubs and schools do when it comes to concussion management,' Paul Hunter says. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Rugby already has a thin form of head protection called a scrum cap — a thin, padded head cap that straps under the chin — but it isn't designed to prevent concussions, Hunter said.

Rather, the caps are primarily for protection against head cuts and cauliflower ear.

"There's no evidence to suggest a scrum cap would prevent concussion-related injuries," Hunter said. "Any player can wear a scrum cap, it's an improved piece of clothing, but it's not one that's mandated to be worn."

Hunter said Rugby Canada also teaches the five areas of contact in rugby. They include the tackle, ruck, maul, scrum and line out. He said the training also provides examples of how these areas should be coached and managed safely.

Education is available

No sport comes risk-free, and when children show an interest in sport, Hunter said, parents should ask questions about how particular clubs and schools approach player safety.

"Parents should be asking 'what do you do to minimize risk in your sport?' Questions should be asked around what do clubs and schools do when it comes to concussion management," he said.

When young kids put helmets on they might think they're "a little bit more invincible," Paul Hunter says, and would do things with their head that they wouldn't necessarily do if they didn't have a helmet. (CBC)

"Clubs and schools and sports, we need to be able to answer these questions. We need to produce evidence to show that we are minimizing risk, that we have initiatives in place, which Rugby Canada has."

One of those initiatives, Hunter said, is Rugby Canada's player-welfare program, called PlaySmart, that launched in 2016.

He said PlaySmart is a "one-stop shop" website for parents, coaches, players and more that provides information on concussion management, positive coaching, drug awareness and more. 

"We don't think that concussion education and player welfare is something you should do once, in part, it's a life-long learning opportunity."

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With files from CBC News: Compass

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