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As a result of increasing concerns about the long-term effects that concussions may have, which includes issues like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the Rugby Football Union has created the HEADCASE program. This online program is designed to provide training and information for teachers and coaches about identifying concussions and managing injured players. However, the evidence indicates that the HEADCASE program is not liable to be a particularly effective method of increasing safety for young rugby players.
Tackling is what makes Rugby so dangerous for many youth participants. One study of rugby at a school showed that 63 percent of injuries were due to a tackle. Overall, in rugby union, there can be as many as 128.9 injuries for every 1,000 hours played for participants who are younger than 21.
Instead of removing the tackle from rugby games, the Rugby Football Union has opted to offer an online course. The Hierarchy of Control has opined that best way to reduce a particular risk is eliminate it; in this case, it would involve removing the tackle from rugby for younger players. When something similar was tried with hockey, where officials made it so that body checks were no longer allowed, the number of injuries and concussions were both reduced.
Making the problem even worse is that education hasn’t shown to be an effective method of reducing risk. Furthermore, the HEADCASE program isn’t even being tracked for its efficacy, and it isn’t even a required course for most. While personal protective equipment is the most ineffective method of risk management by the Hierarchy of Control, the second least effective is listed as administrative controls, which covers educational programs.
It’s possible that HEADCASE could outperform other educational programs and provide better outcomes for young rugby players, but there is no real way to know. This is because the RFU has poor mechanisms for tracking how well the program is working. There are just two programs available, BokSmart and RugbySmart, that employ the processes required by Van Mechelen’s Model of Injury Prevention, which includes efficacy assessments.
It’s also important to note that HEADCASE isn’t even mandatory. There are some organizations that do mandate that coaches, trainers and/or teachers complete training courses, but there is no requirement from the RFU that coaches undergo HEADCASE training. Individuals who are seeking to obtain qualifications must complete the course, but these qualifications are not required for coaches or officials.
Anyone who has already received this qualification is grandfathered in, so the obligation, to the extent that it exists, is only to new coaches and trainers. Lastly, anyone who does have to undergo the training is only obligated to do so once; the RFU has no known intentions of HEADCASE participation required annually.
If the RFU continues to refuse to remove tackling from the game for younger players, the union need to make major modifications to the way that HEADCASE is managed. Training needs to be a requirement for coaches and those associated with managing players, and there needs to be a system of evaluation put in place to ensure that the program is providing the promised benefits.