No doubt about the worst sight in sport in this year so far – the collapse of American football star Damar Hamlin during Monday’s match between Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals stunned the many millions who witnessed it live on prime-time television.

As the medical team fought to save his life on the pitch, it was immediately clear that he had suffered a cardiac arrest. Thankfully medical staff managed to get his heart re-started and at the time of writing, Hamlin is still in intensive care and in a critical condition. We can only hope that the 24-year-old has not suffered too much damage to his heart, and he will make a full recovery as soon as possible.

American Football is a truly dangerous sport, and I am just surprised that many more such near-fatal incidents do not occur during the National Football League (NFL) season. In the entire history of the NFL, only one player, Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions, has died on the field of play when he collapsed with a massive heart attack while playing against the Chicago Bears back in the early 70’s.

Nowadays, barely a week of the NFL season goes by without players suffering serious injuries, with muscle, ligament and joint damage being all too common. Broken limbs are frequent and even with all their shoulder pads, body protectors and helmets, American footballers know they play in a risky sport, and of course in recent years, the main focus has been on head injuries such as concussion.

Hamlin’s collapse followed a collision in which he was hit in the chest while tackling Bengals’ receiver Tee Higgins, and there was no question of foul play. It was just a playing incident that is part and parcel of the game.

As it happens, I have recently been discussing the huge issue of safety in rugby union with several people involved in the game at all levels. They were unanimous that the biggest worry facing our sport is the prevalence of concussion and other head injuries, not least because there is now strong evidence that the brain gets damaged as a result of repeated concussions.

They were unanimous, however, that rugby should not go the way of American Football and bring in helmets. As a former referee told me, wearing helmets would only make rugby players think they could take and dish out head-high tackles.

When I first started playing back in the 1970s, the only protection we wore was a jockstrap and a gumshield, with some players allowed to wear scrum caps in order to prevent injuries like cauliflower ears. Mitts, shoulder pads and shin guards have since been allowed but World Rugby’s stringent regulations on all ‘players’ dress’ specify that protectors are for safety purposes and shoulder pads, for instance, can be no more than 10mm thick. There are special breast protection regulations for female players, while all manufacturers of protective gear for men and women must meet World Rugby’s standards in order to display the ‘approved’ logo.

It’s the least that can be done and honestly, I do not think more protection could be added without changing the whole ethos and culture of our sport.

One thing which I would change is the coaching of tackling, the area of the game which brings about most injuries. I will continue to state that high tackles and hits to the head must continue to be severely punished, and that means more, not fewer, red cards.

Players must be educated from day one on the correct way to tackle an opponent, and on how to be tackled yourself. In my opinion, it’s an issue of respect. If you know how to correctly tackle someone then you will not injure them, while you will respect yourself, and probably remain uninjured, if you know how to sustain a tackle.

Rugby is a contact sport and injuries will happen, so if you’re a parent and your son or daughter wants to play rugby, should you not be warning them off?

I’ve thought a lot about this since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease a wee while ago, and the truth is that I don’t know what caused the Disease in my brain and probably never will. All I do know is that I loved playing rugby and the basic fitness it gave me in my teens and twenties stood me in good stead until fairly recently.

Anyone contemplating rugby must weigh these issues in the balance – does the undoubted good that playing rugby does for people outweigh the possibility of injury? On balance I would say it does.

So, would I have played if I had known that in my fifties I would suffer the onset of decrepit knees – one already replaced – arthritic hips and the remote possibility that numerous head knocks might be a cause of my Parkinson’s Disease?

I most certainly would have played the glorious game but knowing what I know now, I would have taken more care of myself, and probably drunk a lot less beer. Or perhaps not…

In the meantime, can I wish everyone involved in rugby and all sports a good and safe New Year.