Rugby Canada's CEO says major traumatic injuries like one that killed a P.E.I. teenager are rare despite the lack of protective gear because players are trained to safely tackle opponents and respect each other's safety.
Allen Vansen said Wednesday that he was incredibly saddened to hear about the death of Brodie McCarthy, an 18-year-old high schooler who sustained a fatal brain injury during a rugby tournament last Friday.
"We're incredibly saddened to receive that news and all our immediate thoughts and prayers were on Brodie's family, his friends and teammates, the entire community of Montague and his school," Vansen said.
But he said McCarthy's sudden death — five years after the death of Ottawa teen Rowan Stringer after multiple on-field concussions — should not deter other teens from playing the sport.
"It's not a sport that has as much major physical trauma that may be perceived out of a very unfortunate incident like this," he said.
Vansen said rugby is like any other contact sport, but unlike football and hockey, players are trained to be more mindful of each other's safety.
"Rugby is a sport that is founded on very strong values of respect for each other and respect for competitors," Vansen said. "You are taught to tackle in a smart way and in a way that is meant to protect yourself and the opponent you are tackling."
Although players do not wear helmets or protective gear, they are trained to tackle below the shoulders and to immediately recognize when they or others are hurt.
"Our mantra is always 'if in doubt, sit them out.'"
Vansen said Rugby Canada follows strict protocols when it comes to assessing the risks and recognizing concussions and other brain injuries on the field.
Rugby Canada's PlaySmart program was launched in 2016 to educate members and provincial unions on the risk of head injuries on the field and how to properly manage and report them.
"Any player with concussion or suspected concussion should be immediately and permanently removed from training or play," the Rugby Canada website says.
According to Statistics Canada, rugby was the third most common sport in which 15- to 19-year-old males sustained concussions and other brain injuries between 2012 and 2014, behind ice hockey and football.
In 2013, Stringer, a 17-year-old high school rugby player from Ottawa, suffered two concussions in one week before sustaining a third during a rugby game that led to her death two days later. In March, Ontario passed Rowan's Law, concussion safety legislation designed to protect amateur athletes and educate coaches about the dangers of head injuries.
Vansen said rugby officials at Friday's game followed Rugby Canada's protocol on seriously injured players.