A RISE in the number of teenagers suffering serious spinal injures while playing rugby has sparked a government investigation.
Over the past year two 17-year-olds, a 16-year-old and a boy aged 15 were injured so badly they required specialist care at the national spinal unit.
A 44-year-old man also needed treatment at the unit in Glasgow, which deals with the most complex fractures and spinal cord damage.
Two of those injured are now paralysed, with little or no movement in their legs or hands.
Scottish Government officials are gathering data on the number of school pupils hurt during games.
And an expert group has been set up by the Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit in Glasgow to analyse the problem.
For more than a decade before 2006, the average number of players treated annually at the unit was less than one.
The Scottish Rugby Union (SRU), the sport's governing body, confirmed the number of boys playing rugby had soared in recent years.
According to SRU figures, about 20,000 boys aged under 18 play in around 800 teams at 220 schools in Scotland.
In 2007 the number of players increased by 19 per cent over the previous year.
Dominic McKay, the SRU's director of communications and public affairs, said player safety was a top priority and that variations in the rules on scrums and for under-18s had been piloted in an attempt to reduce the danger.
He said: "Our medical director and Scotland team doctor, James Robson, has been working on processes to ensure we hold an accurate database of injuries at all levels of the game.
"Through our associated charity, the Murrayfield Centenary Fund, Scottish Rugby maintains contact and provides support to all seriously injured participants.
"Far from being unsafe, Scottish Rugby has an excellent record in relation to serious injuries though we agree there can be no room for complacency on this topic."
He said that since the early 1950s there had been just 14 long-term very serious injuries, with around half of those affected going on to lead fully independent lives.
He added: "We are pledged to do everything we can to eliminate the risk of injuries.
"Playing rugby and, indeed, sport in general, develops many life skills and has enhanced and enriched the lives of tens of thousands of young Scots over many years."
Others said there was little that could be done to prevent injury given the nature of the sport.
Andy McLeod, from Spinal Injuries Scotland,
said: "The effects of spinal injuries can be devastating and if they happen to young children, they have a lifetime ahead of them to deal with the problems.
"But it's rugby itself that is the issue. Short of changing the rules you can't do much about it. It is, by it's nature, a contact sport."
David Allan, director of the spinal unit, believes teenagers playing rugby may face greater risks when playing alongside boys with very different physical builds or skills levels.
He said: "What we are talking about is a mismatch in age, weight, experience and muscle power."
Mr Allan said all four teenagers treated at the unit in the past two years were regarded as "much better than average, potentially elite players".
He said that in rugby, and other sports such as climbing and squash, less experienced participants might put those more highly trained at risk.
He said: "The injuries sometimes happen when people are playing outwith their age group or experience because we do not have the number of players.
"An elite 15-year-old playing against a poor 18-year-old might be at a disadvantage."
Mr Allan said there had been moves in Australia and New Zealand to select young players for teams based on their experience, weight and age to reduce the risks.
Jamie Maclean, lead consultant in children's orthopaedics in Tayside, who is setting up the expert group research, said changes in professional rugby – including an increase in the size of players and the introduction of new tackling methods – had filtered down to youth sides.
He said: "Similar trends are evident in the schoolboy game, particularly in the 16-18 age group, where adult coaching techniques are often employed.
"The potential for increased injury is evident."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "While the Scottish Government is fully supportive of school rugby, it's very important we have accurate data about injuries sustained on the pitch to ensure that young people are not being exposed to disproportionate risks."
Lives left blighted by sport
CIARAN Pryce was just 15 when his dreams of playing national rugby were cut short. The talented young player is now paralysed from the neck down following a tragic accident on the pitch.
Ciaran, who had been playing for Cathkin High School, was rushed to hospital in October 2007 after a violent clash of heads during a game against Kilmarnock.
A year on and Ciaran, who had a trial for Scotland last year, still requires full-time care from his family.
The accident left him tetraplegic – paralysed from the neck down, with only limited movement of his upper limbs. The Ciaran Pryce Appeal has been set up to raise money for his long-term medical needs.
Ciaran is not the only young player to have suffered crippling injuries.
In September, a 17-year-old pupil at Merchiston Castle sustained severe spinal injuries during a match against another private school.
Within the past year, three other players, two of whom were under 18, have been admitted to a specialist Spinal Injuries Unit in Glasgow.
An expert group has now been set up by the unit to analyse the number of young players that have sustained injuries.