Scrums of death: Concern over Kenyan rugby fatalities

On March 3, 2020, a dark cloud of grief engulfed the Kenyan rugby fraternity after news broke that a former international Tony Onyango Opondo had collapsed and died in his house, in Ngong town here in Nairobi.

Reports showed that the 28-year-old succumbed to cardiac arrest hours after leaving training at Ruaraka Sports ground, with that tragic incident offering sobering reminder of the dangers surrounding injuries in rugby.

Even before the dust on his grave settled, the rugby fraternity was mourning another loss. Eliakim Oundo, a form three student in Sigalame Boys High School passed on while fighting for his life in hospital after suffering concussion at an inter-school tournament in Busia.

What followed was a statement from the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) issuing strict guidelines to the Kenya Secondary Schools Sports Association (KSSA) and the entire rugby fraternity in Kenya, that strict and thorough medical screening should be conducted on players before they are allowed into the pitch with the oval ball.

“It is instructive to note that KRU has issued guidelines on player medical pre-screening before players take part in rugby activity, involving the use of a standard questionnaire and recommended tests.

“KRU also regularly runs courses on player welfare related issues like Concussion Management, First Aid in Rugby and Immediate Care in Rugby. KRU has an appreciated list of qualified personnel to run the said courses as well to offer any advice that may be sought. World Rugby also provides online resources which help in the above.

“KRU encourages all coaches to subscribe to the World Rugby site and take the online courses which are a prerequisite to any certification they may seek to acquire,” the statement read in part.

It’s easy to note athletes in any contact sport are always one injury – a spinal fracture, a neck injury, a broken leg – away from kissing their careers goodbye but it becomes a different ball game when the constant fear that paying the ultimate price is thrown into that fold.

Sports scientist Dr Edwin Kiptolo Boit argues that most of the sudden deaths in rugby are attributed to cardiac/heart anomalies such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy while others are caused by Long QT syndrome which basically refers to heart rhythm disorder.

And while some of these conditions can be remedied, poor medical pre-participation screening has been the main undoing for most schools, clubs and federations.

“Sudden deaths are becoming common in rugby because of lack of proper and thorough medical pre-participation screening. If we are able to do this diligently, then that means we will be a position to detect any underlying conditions and address them early. We need to have rigorous testing in the Kenya cup, ESS and even in the universities to ensure we know the status of the players before they take to the pitch.”

Although bulkiness hasn’t been scientifically proven to cause any health complications to a player, use of supplements that are not medically approved has been hugely blamed, a perspective Tom Lagat – A strength and conditioning coach at USIU – agrees with.

“Some players choose to use shortcuts to bulk up so as to stand a chance among the huge teammates. For a moment it might look like a safe and faster way to build muscle but it has it’s health complications.

“The KRU has a list of approved supplements but the explanation on how best to use them is lacking and that invites loopholes for violation. Some supplements have performance enhancing ingredients that the players may not be aware of that some of them have adverse side effects.” Lagat noted.

Dr Boit, a Masters degree holder in sports medicine and lecturer at the Kenyatta University says players and coaches should learn on how to maximise the effectiveness of their bodies and gaining usable muscle mass.

Dead Weight

This can be realized through the use of RFD (rate of force development to power output) method where an athlete develops muscle that raises their rate of force development and thus giving them an upper hand in physical performance.

This simply means an athlete is able to produce huge force over a short period of time which perfectly suits rugby players who are constantly involved in short and long sprints throughout the game.

“The importance of emphasis on rate of force development power output, the athlete doesn’t have any dead weight. This has helped European nations to train their rugby players better and this specificity of training actually improves their longevity in the game,” Boit explained.

Constant monitoring of players at all levels is key to ensuring there is information available on the amount of physical and psychological load placed on them and how best to manage that.

While this has been achieved by some teams at the top level by use of body cams, GPS systems, Video analysis, inertia measuring devices, force plate analysis among others, its cost has weighed heavily on teams that aren’t financially stable leaving them with no option but to rely on the naked human eye.

While heart related anomalies account for the lion share of the rugby deaths, experts argue that clubs have played a major role in reducing concussion cases by employing strict measures during tackling as well as streamlining response to suspect concussion cases.

Tom Lagat who has previously worked with several top flight teams in the Kenya cup such as Impala Saracens and Menengai Oilers as well as the Kenya Simbas opines that players need to stick to natural ways of gaining muscle mass by abandoning use of supplements and also investing in good nutrition.

“Players should look after themselves by using natural ways to gain or lose body weight. It’s also good to utilise expertise from strength and conditioning coaches as well as a nutritionist who can help them stay healthy.”

Whereas ardent rugby fans love the hard tackles along with the physical side of the game, they dread the thought of losing a player because of the same. We can’t live without this old lovely game, but it only takes a tackle to change it all.

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