by Tom Billups
There are very few scrum collapses that I don’t remember from that 1997 test versus Hong Kong. Late in a hot and muggy game, our opponents made a front row substitution at a knock on. The very next engagement promptly collapsed.
Immediately I knew something was wrong. After being taken off the field on a backboard, and later diagnosed with a fracture in my cervical spine at the local hospital, I was flown home with our team doctor as the team departed for Japan. Thankfully after landing at home and completing several follow up appointments the fracture turned out to be a false positive reading.
I was fortunate to sustain a potential front row cervical spinal injury and not any long-term health concerns. I worry that some of today’s high school players may not receive such good medical care.
There are injuries in all contact sports, but in our sport, there should be a heighten level of concern for the safety and well being of the front row forwards. Even highly trained international level players like England’s Steve Thompson and Australia’s Brendan Cannon have fallen victim to career-ending injuries while competing in the front row.
Front row players (props and hooker) are in a direct confrontation with the opposition during scrums. It is during this time when possessions are being contested and a vast amount of pressure is built up on the player’s spinal column. Additionally, due to the variance in the body types and levels of physical development of high school age players, the less physically mature player can be even more vulnerable if not physically and technically prepared for the rigour of front row play.
To lessen the inherit danger of playing in the front row, all coaches and parent-coaches should make front row player preparedness and safety their number one priority. While the preparing of players does not replace the need of medical staff, it can lessen the risk of a player being injured.
Coaches have a high degree of responsibility to not place an under prepared (physically or technically) rugby player in harm’s way, i.e. the scrum.
If a team is short-handed for whatever reason of front row qualified players, an athlete who has not been properly coached in the technicalities of the position must never be pressured into playing a front row position. I know it happens, but it is just not worth the risks involved to the athlete. I was well prepared and consider myself lucky to escape with only a sore neck.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand, the U.S. and England for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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