After the applause, the tough reality

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Johannesburg - Rugby players are among the toughest athletes on the planet. But the game often bequeaths to them a legacy of a lifetime of health problems. 

Scientists are now calling on the sport’s governing bodies to step up efforts to prevent injury and support players after retirement.

In a bid to try and bring hope to these unfortunate dedicated sports men and women, South Africa established the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.

“When a South African rugby player runs onto the field, he does so with a team behind him. So when he finds himself having to adapt to life with a new normal after a catastrophic injury, it is once again a team approach needed to lift him up,” SA Rugby says.

The fund was established in 1980 following the tragic death of two players, Western Province fullback Chris Burger and Kylemore wing Petro Jackson, who both suffered broken necks on the field of play.

The fund has managed to stand to this day but is it enough in a country where both professional and amateur rugby is so popular and growing?

“Rugby brings people together. Whether you play at school, club or professional level, there’s an undeniable bond between all who play the game and an unwritten rule that we should look after each other.  Those hurt in the field of play should be supported. More charity organisations should be established for this good cause,” says Springbok legend Jean de Villiers, who is the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund chairman.

In 2008, the South African Rugby Union launched the BokSmart nationwide injury prevention programme. Through education mainly of coaches and referees the programme aims to improve the prevention and management of catastrophic injuries. 

In addition, the BokSmart program also introduced modules as part of the education material delivered to referees and coaches in their workshops that deal specifically with safety in the playing environment, and the correct management of catastrophic injuries.

“Because of the diversity and demographic vastness in South Africa, most levels outside the semi-professional and professional rugby structures have limited medical support, medical equipment, medical facilities and qualified medical personnel at matches if at all.

“The focus of the Rugby Medic Programme is mainly on the disadvantaged and under-resourced areas, which do not have any appropriate equipment, training or medical support. These clubs or schools are often identified by the unions, or can directly request training, and BokSmart, within the constraints of an annual and regionally allocated budget, provides the Rugby Medic training at no cost to these schools or clubs,” says BokSmart.

Since a higher level of play in rugby is possibly associated with a higher incidence of injuries the Rugby Super 14 competition has been widely regarded as one of the most grueling competitions in the world. 

Super 14 is played by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and a high incidence of injuries is expected in a competition of this caliber.

Scientific data concerning an overall injury rate during the Super 14 indicates 120 injuries per 1,000 playing hours.

Most of the injured players are reported to suffer from dementia as well as physical and emotional repercussions of their incidents. 

They suffer from the impact on their employment prospects and the cost of care they and their families incur is always beyond their abilities.

“Rugby is more than what happens on the field; it’s a game where family values and camaraderie are strong. That means also assisting those in need, which is why SA Rugby’s support is vitally important, and it was a great driver to ensure the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund became our official charity a few years ago ,” says Jurie Roux, SA Rugby CEO.

 

Tragedies

World over, injured players tell tales of pain and abandonment, as well as of hope and triumph over adversity.

“Please look after my family and ask the guys to see that they’re okay,” were the last words of Western Province fullback Chris Burger on August 30, 1980 when he spoke with his captain, Morné du Plessis, for the last time. He had suffered a broken neck.

South Africa’s Amos Mzimeli broke his neck at the age of 18 while playing for Moonlight Rugby Club on May 20, 1990 and he has benefited from the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund. “The fund plays a huge role in my life. If they weren’t part of my life, I would probably have passed away years ago,” he says.

Namibian international Jacques Burger has said: “I’ve had two double cheekbone reconstructions, three shoulder surgeries, I think I’ve had around nine or ten on my right knee I came back training and I was just in so much pain I told them ‘I can’t do it anymore’ and they said that I’d get through it. They had to take a wedge out of my leg and they restructure your leg so it’s in a different position, it takes the pressure off the other side. That was a long battle.” 

Rugby players have suffered permanent brain damage, and some of them have filed a class action for negligence in Australia, Britain, New Zealand and South Africa.

The players have presented a list of 15 proposed changes that they believe will make the game safer, such as limiting the amount of contact in training, reducing tactical substitutions, and measures to improve detection of head injuries.

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