A retrospective study was undertaken to determine aetiological factors for 117 catastrophic neck injuries in rugby players admitted to the Spinal Cord Unit, Conradie Hospital, Cape Town, between 1963 and 1989. Nineteen of these players were known to be dead; the files of another 10 were missing. Questionnaires were sent to the remaining 88 players and 52 responded (59%). Their data were supplemented with information obtained from the medical records of the patients who did not respond. The annual number of admissions increased dramatically after 1976 with 83% of all injuries occurring after that date. A further increase since 1984 contrasts with a falling incidence of these injuries in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Increased risk of injury was related to the following factors: 98% of injuries occurred in matches and 81% were incurred by adults; 69% of injuries occurred in age-group A team or senior first team players; and 57% of injuries occurred in the tackle situation and 39% in scrums, rucks and mauls. Hooker, centre and flyhalf were the playing positions at greatest risk. Injuries were more common in early season matches and again after the mid-season break. This study confirmed that spinal cord injuries occur under predictable circumstances and are therefore foreseeable and preventable. The high incidence of these injuries in the Cape Province is as unacceptable today as it was when first reported in 1977.