I will not coach rugby with COVID-19 surging

Vic Drover - Rugby Coach

Safety. For us at Hamilton Rugby in Sussex, Wisconsin, it is the first and last word we consider for any activity.

And broadly speaking, rugby as a sport is pretty good at putting safety first.

But that wasn’t always the case. 

When I began playing rugby in 1994, the main safety concern was catastrophic spinal injury resulting from collapsed scrums. Major changes were and continue to be made to the scrum. As a result, we are fortunate to see great improvements in safety in this area.

About 10 years ago, concussion became (and remains) the primary safety concern for rugby. Numerous changes to head injury assessment and “return to play” protocols were instituted. I’m proud to see the heightened awareness and progress towards a safer sport with less concussion risk. 

Today, we have the threat of COVID-19, the global pandemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide and is surging in numerous areas in the United States. 

COVID-19 represents new challenges for everyone. 

With so much still to learn about COVID-19, it can be hard to decide how to return to play for the 2020-2021 rugby season.

As a high school coach in Wisconsin, this can be particularly confusing. Despite re-opening early, the number of cases in the state remains relatively low and are not overwhelming hospitals. This has led to the state governing body for youth sports to re-open for the Fall season

It’s thus not surprising that many players and coaches are keen to get back to training and league competition. And with other sports returning, there is indirect pressure for rugby to follow suit. 

However, the physical safety of my family and the student athletes is paramount. Rugby is a low-equipment, high-contact sport and we have very little data right now on how this affects infection and transmission rates among athletes.

We also don’t know much about transmission rates from infected players to family members, teachers, non-rugby playing friends and coaches. 

With this uncertainty, some conferences/leagues are planning on following World Rugby recommendations on removing or reducing scrums in an effort to reduce infection rates.

A colleague said to me recently that “If scrums are not safe, then maybe rugby is not safe”. That comment really struck me hard.

Scrum Hamilton 2018
At the elite level, rugby players who are most often in scrums are in close contact with other players for about 13 minutes per game.

If football is not safe, is rugby?

Yesterday a COVID-19-positive student was identified in pre-season high school football conditioning in a neighboring school district.

Football is also a high-contact sport so it’s a good comparison for rugby.

In this case, the possibility of COVID-19 transmission from a single player during (presumably) non-contact conditioning was enough for the school district to suspend not just football but also dance, cheer, soccer, softball, basketball and volleyball.

College football programs have also been struck with similar issues. Numerous pre-season programs are self-reporting dozens of infected and quarantined athletes including Louisiana State University and Clemson.

Rugby has less equipment and more close contact than football. In an average high school match in Wisconsin there are nearly 200 “close contact” events: 90 tackles, 70 rucks, 15 scrums and 7 lineouts.

Without pads and helmets, COVID-19 transmission is likely to be higher in rugby than in football.

A ruck is a contest for possession that occurs after a tackle. Three to six players will be in close contact at most rucks.

Decisions, decisions…

With all this in mind, I have made the difficult decision to not coach rugby this Fall and Spring. I see no compelling reason for returning to play that justifies the risk of infection with COVID-19 and/or transmitting COVID-19 to others. 

Although I have been laboring about this decision for some time, it seems I am not the only one. Other coaches in my network have cancelled their season for similar reasons or are anxiously awaiting word from their league/conference.

I am very, very grateful for their words of support and encouragement.

I am also drawing support for my decision from the actions of the Ivy League to cancel Fall sports and AIC Rugby’s decision to cancel their season.

These are very prestigious sports organizations and teams and I hope our schools eventually follow these examples. Otherwise, we’ll see more and more cases of infection due to unsafe sporting practices.

Rugby coaches can lead the way on safety

Despite the history of the sport, rugby is serious about safety. For example, we have been way ahead in concussion awareness and prevention for at least a decade where other sports are still debating the issue.

So going backwards on safety is not an option for rugby. It’s not an option for me. We’ve made too much progress in this area. 

Instead, now is the time to “lean in” on safety and set a strong example for other sports.

9 comments
  1. Susan H
    Susan H
    July 20, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    Thank you for this. 💕

    Reply
  2. Vic Drover
    Vic Drover • Post Author •
    July 20, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for your support.

    Reply
  3. Robert D Ford II
    Robert D Ford II
    July 20, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    Well said sir. Sad but necessary.

    Reply
  4. Michael
    Michael
    July 21, 2020 at 6:23 am

    Well written and wonderfully expressed. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  5. Michael
    Michael
    July 21, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    I dearly appreciate the content and supported information. That I’m able share with my club parents and peers. I’m
    In full agreement with canceling the season in Az for the fall. More than likely for the spring as well?

    Reply
  6. Truman Esmond
    Truman Esmond
    July 21, 2020 at 12:39 pm

    Thank you so much for this well reasoned article. I’m going to share it far and wide. I completely agree. Especially in the youth sports arena, safety has to be first – not free from risk, but mitigated where they’re avoidable and consequential. That’s certainly COVID-19. Thank you for your professionalism and focus on whats important. We’re doing our best to resume activity, but it’s a far cry from what we’d call rugby – and to your point – it will be for a while in the interest of safety and avoidable tragedy. One is too many.

    Reply
  7. Michael M Webber
    Michael M Webber
    July 21, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    I dearly appreciate the content and supported information. That I’m able share with my club parents and peers. I’m
    In full agreement with canceling the season in Az for the fall. More than likely for the spring as well?

    Reply
  8. Wendy Young
    Wendy Young
    July 22, 2020 at 9:23 am

    Thank you for standing up on this issue. We all want to get back to playing but can only do so when it is safe. With you.

    Reply
  9. Vic Drover
    Vic Drover • Post Author •
    July 22, 2020 at 10:04 am

    Thanks Wendy. Much appreciated.

    Reply
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