Has the Risk of Concussion in Rugby Grown Over the Years?

The origins of rugby date 199 years to a school in Warwickshire, England known as the Rugby School. Although no one can prove this conclusively, the story goes that a football player named William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran down the field with it. No player had ever done that before, since teams only kicked the ball prior to the 1823 season.

Schools have been playing what the world now knows as rugby for almost 200 years. However, it wasn’t until 1863 that several English boarding schools decided the official rules for the game. The official Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871. The first international rugby match took place the same year with Scotland defeating England 1-0.

Mechanics of the Game of Rugby

Rugby football teams play with an oval ball, regardless of whether the team participates in rugby union or rugby league play. Rugby unions have 15 players per team, while rugby leagues have 13 players per team. The goal is to carry, kick, or pass the ball over the endzone as many times as possible.

Each rugby game consists of two 40-minute halves with a brief five-minute break between them. Neither team can call a timeout. The only exception is when the referee calls a one-minute timeout to allow coaches to attend to injured players.

As players move towards the opposing team’s goal, they must throw the ball back to another player rather than forward as in traditional football. Opposing teams can tackle the player with the ball to try to prevent him or her from reaching the endzone.

Rugby in the 1900s

England, France, and Germany each entered rugby teams in the 1900 Summer Olympics, marking the first time the sport made an appearance. The games drew tremendous crowds, and France took home the gold medal. The Olympic committee discontinued rugby competitions in 1924, despite their popularity.

Eight years later, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, representing all nations in the Southern Hemisphere, created rugby teams of their own. These teams played against Northern Hemisphere teams. The sport continued to grow in popularity, but it would not host its first World Cup game until 1987.

Concussion in Rugby More Prevalent After the Sport Went Pro

Rugby changed forever in 1995 when professional leagues formed that enabled players to receive payment for their work. Approximately 61 percent of people involved in the game at any level feel that tackles become more aggressive at this time. As a result of the sport turning pro, players feel more concerned about the long-term effects of suffering a concussion in rugby than they ever did in the past.

The Drake Foundation conducts research on the impact of concussion in rugby and has determined that players with a history of brain injury often suffer early cognitive decline. The number of tackles in each rugby game has increased significantly since the sport went pro.

In 1987 and 1991, eight years and four years before rugby players started getting paid, the average number of tackles per game were 94 and 102. In 2015 and 2019, the most recent two years for which statistics are available, tackles jumped to an average of 236 and 257 per game. The typical player’s height and weight have also increased over the years, which means that tackles are more likely to cause a concussion in rugby.

The Drake Foundation has called on rugby organisations to take additional precautions to protect the brain health of players. This comes after research proved that rugby is moving backward in terms of player safety due to increased player aggressiveness.