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Is rugby the pinnacle of child safeguarding in sport?

In his latest blog, Leigh Day abuse claims partner Dino Nocivelli explores how rugby compares to other sports in terms of reported abuse in both school clubs and professional teams.

Posted on 28 May 2024

The issue of childhood sexual abuse in sport is one that I am sadly too aware of after acting for abuse survivors in numerous sports, including football, gymnastics, athletics, swimming and many others.  

Despite its popularity and high level of participation, rugby has to date not faced the level of disclosures of childhood sexual abuse in professional clubs as we have seen in other sports. Aside from rugby being played in most schools in England and Wales, significant numbers of children play for local clubs and the latest data shows that nearly 200,000 adults play rugby regularly every year. 

Is safeguarding of children in professional rugby clubs of such a high standard that it has been able to prevent abuse, to the extent that  other sports should be looking at it as one of the pinnacles of safeguarding in sport? Or has abuse in fact taken place in professional rugby clubs but child abuse survivors have not been able to make it known? 

The lack of known abuse in professional rugby is contrary to abuse in rugby overall. I have acted and continue to act in a number of abuse in rugby cases within boarding schools, including a recent case in which a former pupil settled his case against teacher and rugby coach Peter Holmes. 

Inappropriate “hazing” initiations of a sexual nature in rugby are an ongoing concern (predominantly at universities), and an issue that has been reported at professional level, including the alleged behaviour of James Haskell and his then fellow players from Wasps who were described as taking part in degrading sexual games and performing sex acts on each other in front of employees on a boat. 

There have also been instances of professional rugby players sexually assaulting women, with the most recent being Fiji player Api Ratuniyarawa who was jailed in January 2024 for sexually assaulting three women in Cardiff while being part of the Barbarians squad. 

There has been widespread coverage of sexual assault allegations in addition to misogyny and sexism within the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), including jokes about raping a woman. 

After considering the scale of sexual abuse in a rugby context of children within schools and of adults within universities, offices and in society, it is clear to me that rugby sadly faces the same issues of abuse as other sports and also similar barriers to disclosure; therefore I hope that those who have suffered abuse in rugby are one day able to disclose and that the sport is ready for that day.  

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Abuse claims Human rights

Dino Nocivelli

Dino is an experienced child sexual abuse claims lawyer

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