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Many pundits before the Rugby World Cup had predicted that the route to the final would have matched England (winners in 2003 and finalists in 2007) and New Zealand (tournament hosts and pre competition favourites) against one another in the final to be played at Eden Park in Auckland on Sunday 23 of October. Such a matchup is now an impossibility following England’s 12-19 defeat to France. One player who knew before the tournament began that he would definitely not be playing against England was Carl Hayman. Arguably the current greatest tight-head prop of World rugby, Hayman, like the England squad, will be watching the World Cup Final from the comfort of his own front room.

Hayman sent shockwaves through the rugby fraternity by turning down a £700,000 a year contract to represent his country in their own back yard, at this year’s World Cup. Hayman instead opted for a reported £1.125m a year contract from Toulon to play in France for two seasons. Hayman himself called his decision a ‘selfish’ one as he wished to maximise his earning potential in what is increasingly becoming a short career.

Another tight-head prop received a sum of £1.125m in 2005; however this was awarded in compensation under entirely different circumstances through the RFU’s insurance policy. Matt Hampson had his rugby dreams snatched away from him during an England U21’s scrum session in 2005. As the two sets of forwards engaged for a scrum, the scrum collapsed and Matt took the full weight of both sides of the scrum through his neck. Matt is now rendered a quadriplegic as a result of a dislocated neck stemming from the incident. The dark art of scrummaging has come under much scrutiny in recent years and the timely release earlier last month of “Engage! The Fall & Rise of Matt Hampson” stands to remind every one involved in rugby that safety has to be of paramount importance particularly in one of the most technical aspects of the game.

Matt’s harrowing tale is one that has created calls for a prohibition on scrummaging because of such safety fears. James Bourke (a former doctor for Nottingham RUFC) in a 2006 British Medical Journal article called for there to be an outright ban on contested scrums within the game. His concerns were that the laws of the engagement of the scrum and the amount of insurance cover for injured players were both inadequate. Matt received the standard pay-out for somebody from a Premiership club who is seriously injured with lifelong consequences while playing for England. Had Hampson been a junior rugby player, he would have received less than half, just £500,000 in final settlement. It is estimated that the Hampson family require £250,000 a year to continue to pay for the 10 carers he requires to live his life. Following Matt’s injury the RFU set up a working party under Martyn Thomas, Chairman of the RFU Management Board to investigate the incident and make recommendations for the future.

It is clear then that the non elite level schools and clubs are worried about the dangers they come up against,  especially in the face of a compensation culture. Professor Allyson Pocock, director of Edinburgh University’s Centre for International Health Policy, previously called for the ban of contested scrums in schools; “We know that most injuries occur in tackles and the scrum so there have got to be much greater safety measures in these areas”. At grass roots level the enforcement of the laws of the game relating to safety falls at the feet of referees. Two cases that highlight the potential liability that referees can face are Vowles v Evans & Welsh Rugby Union [2003] 1 WLR 1607 and Mountford v Newlands School and another [2007] EWCA Civ 21. In the former case contrary to the laws of the game a referee allowed an inexperienced back-row forward on the opposing team to take the place of an injured front-row forward at prop and rather than opt to make the scrums uncontested for the remainder of the match, a scrum collapsed and left the hooker (Mr Vowles) confined to a wheelchair. In the latter case in an U15’s game a 16-year-old was allowed by the referee to take to the field and 14-year-old Matthew Mountford who was half the weight of the 16-year-old boy suffered a shattered elbow when he was tackled. Following five operations to insert metal plates into his arm, he has been left scarred and permanently disabled.

So where does this leave the local schools and clubs who are going to be flooded with new and renewed interest in the game of Rugby Union following the hype of the World Cup? Will schools and amateur clubs opt out of offering the traditional game of Rugby Union in favour of one with a de-powered scrum, simply because of fears of being sued? Rugby Union’s whole identity is founded upon there being a position for every size and build, contested scrums require front-row forwards to be a certain shape. If contested scrums are taken away from the game then 116 years of two separate forms of the game will be lost and we will just be left with Rugby League and a ‘sport for all’ lost forever. There needs to be an investment of time and money into ensuring coaches and referees are up to date on current laws and techniques, following a full risk assessment with a focus on safety. As we increasingly worry about the next generation of children becoming more obese than the last, then let’s embrace a game that does make due allowance for size and shape, providing a sporting outlet for all who are willing!

If you have any issues relating to injuries suffered whilst playing sport which fall outside the laws of the game then why not get in contact with our specialist Sports Law team, who can give you the very best advice available.

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