Rugby injury ruling fuels fear for contact sports

26th April 1996 at 01:00
School sport is facing a new threat following last week's High Court ruling that a rugby referee was responsible for injuries to a young player whose neck was broken when a scrum collapsed.

John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association, said the decision was "very worrying" as teachers already took on huge responsibilities for health and safety in team games. "It is not easy to get volunteers and this will make it more difficult. And, clearly, schools are going to need advice on insurance."

The ruling would have implications for other sports, he said. The association's latest survey on sport in schools, published last year, showed that extra-curricular activities already were declining Schools will be given new advice from the Rugby Football Schools' Union, said Ron Tennick, secretary of the RFSU, which has more than 3,000 member schools. It employs a referee development officer who runs courses for teachers, and 10,000 have gained preliminary coaching awards in the last five years.

The injured player, Ben Smoldon, now 21, was aiming at a place in his county's under-19 squad when he was paralysed from the shoulders down during a game between Sutton Coldfield and Burton upon Trent Colts in 1991. He is now studying leisure management in Birmingham and coaches rugby.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Curtis said the referee, Michael Nolan, failed to exercise reasonable care and skill to prevent the abnormally high number of scrums collapsing, or to instruct the players. Mr Smoldon is seeking Pounds 1 million damages which have still to be decided. He also sued an opposing forward for allegedly bringing down the scrum. Thomas Whitworth, now 22, was cleared of negligence.

Pat Smith, general secretary of the National Council for School Sport, was concerned at the knock-on effect of the judgment for all contact sports, as it would make teachers unwilling to take part. The council has recently launched an insurance scheme to cover all helpers at district and federation level who are not covered by their schools for extra-curricular sport. It gives a Pounds 2 million indemnity for a Pounds 200 a year premium and is run through the Central Council of Physical Recreation.

Tony O'Brien, of Perkins Slade, the insurance company behind the scheme, said referees should not be blamed for everything as they were supervising, not controlling, sport.

Malcolm Berry, chief executive of the English Schools' Football Association, was confident that the vast majority of teachers would carry on as normal.

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