The trial of a "front row passport" in schoolboy rugby is one of the recommendations from a review of four serious spinal injuries in Queensland last year.
Rugby Australia released the independent report by a Serious Injury Review Panel, which was asked to convene after a cluster of neck injuries in Queensland's GPS competition in July and August.
Four teenage rugby players - Oliver Bierhoff (18, Toowoomba Grammar School), James Kleidon (17, Toowoomba Grammar School), Conor Tweedy (16, St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace), and Alexander Clark (15, St Joseph’s Nudgee College) - suffered spinal injuries in a range of different incidents, both during games and in training.
Rugby Australia, the Queensland Rugby Union and the GPS headmasters subsequently commissioned the independent review by a panel, chaired by James Bell QC and including Wallabies great Tim Horan, former Queensland Reds front rower Anthony Mathison, Rugby Australia Chief Medical Officer Warren McDonald, and GPS schools representative Brian Short.
The Serious Injury Review Panel were tasked with "determining whether there were any common themes with the injuries, and if anything could be learned from the incidents to improve safety in the future".
Two teens, two broken necks, two remarkable journeys towards recovery. Conor Tweedy and Ollie Bierhoff’s positive outlooks after "catastrophic" spinal injury is incredible | Close Contact #AustralianStory pic.twitter.com/QkXjYlnT3S— Australian Story (@AustralianStory) November 19, 2018
Submissions were made by the players and their families, GPS schools, the QRU and Rugby AU.
The panel found that the spinal injuries were all "unrelated and dissimilar incidents", with the injuries coming from a clean out, after scoring a try, a collapsed scrum and during a pick-and-drive at training. It found none of the incidents involved foul play.
But the recommendations of the panel focussed heavily on ensuring all 4500 players at nine GPS Schools in Queensland can, in the future, engage in rugby in the safest possible environments.
The three recommendations are:
1. Consider changes to the way Rugby is offered at GPS schools so that “best practice” is followed in accordance with Rugby Australia and QRU guidelines.
2. Review the insurance maintained by them to cover the risk of players suffering serious injury.
3. Each school devise and resolve upon a serious injury protocol.
Rugby Australia said it had developed a "Best Practice Safe Rugby Framework" at the request of the panel, which incorporates its existing player safety guidelines and participation policy, which include proven coach and player safety education and accreditation systems, injury prevention strategies and initiatives such as "weight for age" guidelines.
In a release, Rugby Australia said: "The new framework incorporates a broad range of aspects including player assessment, laws, policies and procedures, facilities, grounds and match day, training education and accreditation, information management, coach and referee development, and competition structure and draws.
"Some of the most significant developments will be made in player assessment. New measures will be put in place to assess the physical development, motor competency and skill development of individual players to ensure that players have the requisite skills, health and critical competencies to minimise the risk of potential injury.
"The new player assessment procedures incorporate programs from tertiary institutions and research, Rugby Australia sports science experts and best practice from other countries."
GPS Schools are contemplating applying weight-for-age safety practices in their competitions, and a pilot "front row passport" program will also be undertaken in the Opens, and in under 16s at As and Bs levels.
Based on a successful model in France, junior players wanting to play in the front row must first be assessed to see if "possess the physical, skill and motor competencies" to take on the role.
The other recommendations focus on injury protocols at the schools, having appropriate insurance and establishing a system that allows the parents of any injured youngster in the future to not be burdened with insurance paperwork in the aftermath, when their attention should be on their child.
The GPS Schools will now review the recommendations.
“The panel has completed a very detailed and professional review of this incredibly unfortunate cluster of serious injuries and on behalf of Rugby Australia I have extended my sincere gratitude to James Bell QC and the other panel members for leading this thorough process," Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle said.
“The safety and welfare of our players is paramount to the game and the thoroughness of the process and the quality of the report that has been provided will be a blueprint for Rugby competitions across Australia going forward. We do however hope that we will never be required to undertake a similar exercise again.
“Rugby Australia in conjunction with World Rugby is constantly making advancements and improvements in player safety and over the past two years has developed a world-leading size for age grading system and a blue card concussion management system. Player safety and welfare continues to be the leading priority in the development of our participation policies and guidelines.
“Rugby Australia, the QRU and the GPS Association of Queensland will continue to provide support to the schools and families that have been affected by these injuries as the young men continue their rehabilitation process and all of our focus is on ensuring that every player in our game continues to be provided with the safest possible environment to play Rugby.”
GPS Association of Queensland Chairman, Peter Fullagar said: “We welcome the report’s recommendations and will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rugby Australia, the QRU and our member schools to deliver leadership in player safety.
“We’ve established a GPS Rugby Review Working Group to step out the Association’s response to the Review’s recommendations and to ensure we support our schools as we implement the Best Practice Safe Rugby Framework as quickly as possible ahead of the 2019 season.
“I would especially like to thank the families of the injured boys for their participation in the Review process as they deal with the impacts of these tragic injuries. We hope the report provides some comfort that their views and perspectives have been listened to and that they have made a valuable contribution to the ongoing improvement of player safety in our schools.”