Front row ‘passport’ to make schoolboy rugby safer

A front row 'passport' will be trialled in this year's GPS Rugby competition in Queensland as one of a raft of new safety measures recommended by the review into a spate of catastrophic schoolboy rugby injuries that rocked the code last year.

Players in the GPS 'A and B' Grade competitions will have to meet a series of physical and skill- and knowledge-based benchmarks under the pilot, which is based on a successful model run in France for players aged 15 years and over.

Toowomba Grammar Student Ollie Bierhoff was one of four catastrophic spinal injury cases studies examined by the Queensland review.

The review, which was chaired by Brisbane barrister James Bell QC, also prompted Rugby Australia to work up a "best practice" framework designed to be implemented across all associations and competitions across the country.

While the review did not include the case of Sydney boy Alex Noble, who was injured in training with the under-16 NSW Rugby Sevens youth selection squad last October, it found there was no common link between the cases of Queensland GPS students Ollie Bierhoff, James Kleidon, Conor Tweedy and Alexander Clark.

It also found that all four were skilled and "quite experienced" schoolboy rugby players who were fit and healthy at the time of their accidents.

Among many measures, the French system tests a player's body mass index (BMI), ankle and neck flexibility, plus their knowledge of scrum calls, to determine whether they are suitable for front row play.

Recovery: Ollie Bierhoff pictured with his parents, Bernie and Colleen, the day he graduated high school last year. Credit:Russell Shakespeare

In addition to the ‘Front Row Passport’, the new Australian framework also includes changes to laws, policies and procedures, facilities, grounds and match day, training education and accreditation, information management, coach and referee development, and competition structure and draws.

RA boss Raelene Castle welcomed the review's findings but said she hoped the sport would never have cause to undertake such an exercise again.

"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," Castle said.

"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.

Alex Noble, from St Ignatius College, Riverview, was injured in a sevens trial last October. Credit:Instagram

"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."

The "Serious Injury Review Panel" also included Wallabies great Tim Horan, former Queensland Reds front rower Anthony Mathison, Rugby Australia Chief Medical Officer Warren McDonald, and GPS schools representative Brian Short. RA said the review would be available on its website.

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