Rugby union and rugby league are typically both high-contact, high-collision sports, and it can invoke dread in many parents when their son (or daughter) decides they want to play one of these codes. So do you wrap up your child in cotton wool and say ‘no!’ straight out to them playing? Here’s a little more info to help with your decision-making.

As parents, we naturally want to do everything we can to protect our kids. We watch their diet, we give them the stranger-danger chat, we teach them how to cross roads… However, when it comes to contact sports, we feel a little out of control. Of course, we want our kids to keep fit and healthy, and being part of a team is a wonderful experience for them. But are we really ok for them to get ‘smashed’ during tackles and scrums on a weekly basis for the sake of fitness and mateship? Maybe … maybe not. And just maybe our kids aren’t getting as ‘smashed’ as we might think they are…

Under 8s

RugbytotsYou’ll find that in all union and league games for young ones, there is no tackling allowed, and every effort is made to ensure the game is safe. For example, Rugbytots rugby play program (see photo) describes its classes as ‘a play session based on key motor skills such as passing, kicking, catching, running agility, awareness of space and balance’.

And Little Rugby uses ‘Tag Rugby Belts’ so that its children can explore the match concept and skills they have learnt during their sessions in a safe, non-contact setting.

8-14 years

NSWRL Junior Rugby League Policies & Procedures Manual, states that children aged 9-12 can only play two 20-minute halves, while those aged 13-15 can play two 30-minute halves, which limits the time for impact on their growing bodies. And there is now zero tackling and zero scrums allowed for these ages groups, thanks to International Laws of the game. The aim is to create a fun game, whereby kids can focus on the fundamentals of league – more touches, more runs, and scoring more tries.

As far as rugby union goes, there seems to be a little more work to do. Former NSW Waratah player Brad Harrison recently caused an upset when he revealed he’d banned his 14-year-old son from club competition because the sport had become ‘too dangerous’. His reasoning was that ‘children are maturing at different rates and what we are seeing is a huge discrepancy in the size of children between the ages of under 12 and under 14’. It seems some kids are playing against others twice their size! He now wants Australian Rugby Union to introduce a compulsory safer, weight-for-age system in order to prevent unnecessary injury. Hopefully, this is just a matter of time…

15-24 years

It’s when our kids reach their later teen years that rugby codes become more of a ‘contact sport’ as the games are taken more seriously.

The latest report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that more than 14,917 people aged 15-24 (mostly males) were hospitalised as the result of an injury they sustained while playing sport. Of these 12 per cent were injured playing rugby union or league. And while you may immediately think these injuries involved the head, they were, in fact, mostly leg and knee injuries as the result of falling.

Interesting, AFL turned out to be a more ‘dangerous’ sport than the rugby codes. This sport accounted for 14 per cent of injuries, and these were mostly head injuries resulting from collision with another player. Soccer was further down the list at nine percent, and most hospitalised injuries related to the legs.

To be fair, the football codes have a lot of participants in the under 24s, so it’s no surprise that these sports account for a large number of hospitalised injuries. But you may like to know that other sports, such as roller sports (skateboarding and rollerskating), wheeled motorised sports and water sports account for a fair chunk of injuries, too, making up 7 per cent, 9 per cent and 5 per cent of injuries respectively in that same survey.


Safety is now front and centre of concern at all levels of rugby union and league in this country, following it’s reputation of injuries.

Professor Peter Milburn, an expert in high impact sports injuries from the school of allied health science at Griffith University, says all players should take care to strengthen their necks, and make sure their head is positioned adequately when going into a tackle. He says that mouthguards are ‘reducing the impact force if it’s a blunt blow sustained at the jaw – anything that can reduce that force would be a help – but headgear really doesn’t [help that much].’

Mario Fenech

Dr Andrew McIntosh, a biomechanics expert in the UNSW School of Risk and Safety Sciences, agrees that headgear is of no major benefit. ‘Skull fractures and intracranial bleeding are rare in rugby injuries, but concussion is relatively common,’ he says. ‘There’s some evidence that the standard headgear may prevent some minor head wounds, but our study found that it was of no benefit in preventing concussion.’ (You can read more about concussion in Hard knocks: Concussion in Sport)

Thankfully, previous high-profile players, such as Mario Fenech (ex South Sydney Rabbitohs captain, see photo), are talking about the health issues they now face due to numerous concussions. ‘I remember getting knocked out that many times and I would never leave the field.’ he admits. ‘You know why? Because I was a lunatic. And I was the captain, I wasn’t going anywhere and I was not leaving the field. I would stay on with concussion. Now, I wouldn’t have a choice.’


Sure, whether your child plays a rugby code or not is entirely up to them and you as their parents. But if your child does decide to take up one of these exciting sports, at least you can rest assured that safety is becoming more and more of a priority.

Photography: hero photo by Wilamoyo.

Tell us: does your child play a rugby code? Why have you or why haven’t you allowed them to play this sport? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Posted on Categories Game Play, General Health, Kids' Sport, Sports PagesTags , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. Chris 26 April 2017 at 3.29am

    I am a Yank in Southern California and youth rugby is the fasted growing sport in the U.S. Concussion rates for football (grid iron) are much higher statistically than rugby. Parents are taking notice and taking their kids out of football and putting them into youth rugby.
    We have a lot of expat Southern Hemisphere parents here and the level of sportsmanship they add to our youth sports culture is very refreshing. I think that fact is a great contributor to the sport’s growth.

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