Is Premier Rugby Sevens Too Dangerous?

Starting a new league in an existing sport is a challenging undertaking.  The sidelines are littered with the carcasses of dead football leagues like USFL, XFL (version 1), UFL, and The Spring League.  But starting a new league in an emerging sport, like rugby in the United States, is even more challenging endeavor.  

The introduction of the Premier Rugby Sevens (PR7s) league in 2021 may raise the tide of rugby awareness and acceptance, and is likely to succeed in the long term.  But is it putting its financial success ahead of player’s safety?  

Jessica Lu's head is slammed to the pitch as being tackled by Temi Ogunjimi.   

Rugby Sevens, or Sevens, is the sport.  It is a faster moving, higher scoring version of traditional 15-player rugby.  Sevens has 7 players per team on the pitch, instead of 15; has seven-minute halves, instead of 40; and a maximum of two minutes half-time, instead of ten. 

My initial impression of the PR7s was positive … it was fast-moving, high scoring, more exciting, and most important, compact in duration.  But my second impression was concerning… has PR7s put player safety a risk? 

Take the case of Jessica Lu.  Jessica is a winger for the Loggerheads women’s team in PR7s.  

EMTs and Team Trainers attend to Jessica, carefully transferring her to a backboard.  

She graduated from Princeton University in 2018 and was the captain of the Women’s Rugby Club.  Three years later she graduated from Harvard Law School, graduating with a Doctor of Law degree.  She then went to worked in the Washington, DC, office of the law firm of Skadden Arps.  Skadden Arps is the sixth largest law firm in the world, is considered a legal powerhouse and a mainstay among the most prestigious law firms. 

Jessica is a smart woman. 

Why, then, did EMTs cart the seemingly unconscious body of Jessica off the field within the first five minutes of the PR7s Championship play?  Or, asked differently, why is PR7s more dangerous?  

Jessica is moved to the EMS vehicle.  

To start, rugby is inherently dangerous.  In March 2016, the American Journal of Sports Medicine reported a study of sports injuries in NCAA Division I schools.  The study found that rugby had an overall injury rate 3 times that of football.  Injury rates for the shoulder, wrist/hand, and lower leg and for sprains, fractures, and contusions in rugby were greater than 4 times as those in football.  Concussion rates were 2.5 times higher in rugby, and the rate of season-ending injuries were 25% higher. 

Rugby Sevens appears to be more dangerous than traditional rugby cited in the report.  Sevens is designed to be faster moving, with fewer players on the pitch and more open space to run.  When collisions occur, they will be with a higher severity of impact.  

Jessica on the EMS vehicle.  

But PR7s approach to play may be accentuating an already higher risk.  I saw more EMT carts on the pitch for the 2022 Championship than in all the Major League Rugby (MLR) matches I have covered since 2018.  MLR is billed as a professional rugby union competition and the top-level championship for clubs in North America.  

The overall caliber of play in the PR7s championship play appeared qualitatively lower to MLR, as evidence by the greater number of unforced errors and turnovers. This may be caused by the skills of the players and the shortness of the season. 

Jessica and the EMS vehicle leave the Q2 pitch.  

PR7s talent is comprised of established rugby players whose careers have plateaued, athletes from other sports, and club-level  players like Jessica.  Here, for example, are a few key players from the Championship winning teams: 

·      Abby Gustaitis, a member of the Women’s 2022 Championship team, was a former Olympic team captain.  She was cut twice by the U.S. 7s national team, most recently after the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and hadn’t touch a competitive pitch since.  She was initially signed as an ambassador and broadcaster for PR7s. 

·      Brock Ian Gallagher, a member of the Men’s 2022 Championship team and Championship MVP admitted in a post-match interview,  “This time last year, I quit. I gave up rugby. I was nothing,” 

A team trainer attends to an injured player as play continues in the background.  Play usually continues in rugby except in cases of severe injury.  

·      Derek Adams, a leading scorer for the Men’s 2022 Championship team, said in a post-match interview, “I started playing rugby last year, I’ve been grinding it, and here I am, first year playing.” 

·      Grace Kukutai, a member of the Women’s 2022 Championship team, the leading tournament scorer, the Championship MVP is not a legacy rugby player, but a netball player.  Netball is like basketball, with distinct differences, but nothing like rugby.  

Team trainers attend to an injured player as a teammate looks on.  

And finally, the PR7s season is incredibly short, not allowing players or teams to hone skills necessary to safely compete.  The 2021 season consisted solely of a one-day championship playoff.  The 2022 season consisted of a one-day championship, preceded by two, one-day events.  The play is so unpredictable that this year’s women’s finalist didn’t win a match entering the championship play. 

What is PR7s to do?  Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  The PR7s league has the right approach to rugby in the US.  Rugby Sevens will have greater fan appeal than traditional rugby once it becomes better known.  

Team trainers and EMT attend to injured player.  Oxygen is supplied and the backboard is made ready.  

But the PR7s League must adjust its business model if it intends to safely compete in the future.  To begin, they need to hire an even caliber of talent.  Mixing experienced professionals with club-level players increases the risk to both players.  Higher skilled player come at a higher price, but rugby players overall are not well paid (most professional players have second jobs in the off-season).  There is plenty of good talent an affordable price.  Next, they can spend less on the venues.  A packed 5,000-seat stadium costs less and looks better on television compare to an empty 20,000-seat Q2 Stadium.  And finally, lengthen the season so players can shake the dust off their skills and begin to synch with their teammates. 

I hope only the best for PR7s, and look forward to covering their next season. 

August 1, 2022

About the Author

Andy Nietupski founded TTL Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds.  TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques.  TTL Sports Media publishes thousands of pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 130,000 items on behalf of its client interests.  

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