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Spinal experts urge footy rule changes

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A review of spinal cord injuries in Australian footballers has sparked calls for rule changes in both rugby union and rugby league.

Apart from the devastating effect such injuries can have on the lives of the footballer, family and friends, researchers studying the problem found players involved received inadequate insurance payouts.

Surgeon Thomas Taylor, of Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, and colleagues studied patients admitted to six Australian spinal cord injury units between 1997 and 2002.

They identified 52 injured footballers, of which 39 per cent became permanently wheelchair-dependent.

Injuries occurred mainly in grade and sub-district games, although three were sustained in rugby union training sessions, one involving a schoolboy.

Almost half of all those injured were rugby players, prompting a call for the game’s laws of scrum engagement to be revised.

“Seven injuries occurred in rugby union scrummage, all but one of which were to front-row forwards, three of them hookers,” the study authors wrote in the latest Medical Journal of Australia.

“Six of the seven injuries occurred at engagement and one at scrum collapse.”

The Australian spinal injury experts repeated warnings made by researchers writing in the British Medical Journal in 1988 on the need to make rugby safer: “Failing to alter the procedures of a game despite the knowledge that existing practices were hazardous and a safe alternative existed could well be held by a court to constitute culpable negligence.”

All spinal injuries studied in rugby league were produced in tackles, 10 to ball carriers and two to tacklers.

“Of the eight injuries to ball carriers in which the exact circumstances were known, seven were the result of multiple tacklers,” the authors wrote.

“A player so brought down is at a disadvantage in his ability to protect himself.

“The laws relating to the tackle in rugby league should be amended.”

The researchers said eight of the rugby union players received injuries so severe they were rendered quadriplegics, two of them becoming Ventilator dependent.

“We have calculated that the total for the range of settlements for these quadriplegic players would be $70.5-88.4 million … had they been injured in road accidents,” the authors wrote.

“In regrettable contrast, under existing player insurance cover, the maximum award for Quadriplegia is $300,000.

“If the present laws of rugby union and rugby league remain unchanged, other things being equal, the current injury rates will not change.

“Thus we could well ask: if injury rates are predictable, why not use the predicted rates to institute adequate insurance schemes for injury in each code?”

© 2005 AAP

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