Now I love rugby, I live and breathe it. But a fantastic article I glanced on the BBC Sport website pointed out a harrowing fault in the sport. Concussion.
Concussion itself is something anyone playing rugby takes as a possibility every time they walk onto the pitch. Like broken bones, cuts and bruises it’s something that happens in a full contact sport, and is something rugby shares with others, like American football, Ice hockey and boxing.
Yet, where rugby fails is in its treatment of concussion. When you’ve broken a bone and are plastered in a cast or are bleeding from a gaping wound it’s evident you’re injured. Yet when you’re concussed it’s as if there is some invisible phantom that doesn’t exist, some hell that’s the nightmare of all coaches, having to substitute their player for sometimes no visible reason except grogginess.
Broken bones and cuts can heal, there may be scars, but most rugby players I know are proud of the odd war wound. Concussion can be irreversible.
The huge problem, highlighted by Shontayne Hape’s recent article in the New Zealand Herald, is that people seemingly turn a blind eye to the most dangerous long term injury in rugby. He believes he was concussed around 20 times during his rugby league career.
Linked to CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain condition brought about by constant trauma to the head, and early onset dementia, multiple concussion injuries can be life changing, and can even cause death as the tragic and recent death of 17-year-old Jordan Kemp in New Zealand, after being concussed in a game, proves.
So why does the IRB seemingly turn a blind eye and coaches at every level of the sport. More and more we hear of players saying they’re expected to play, or turn out for their team a week after being concussed, when they need longer recovery time. Recently Rory Lamont came out with complaints about concussion treatments and tests.
This is just as bad at grassroots level. From experience I remember in an under 15 game for my school a player who was concussed being asked if he could go back on after half time even though he didn’t know where he was. These are people who play rugby for mere enjoyment, and attend school primarily for an education, which isn’t aided when their brain is so pulverised they can’t remember what they had for breakfast!
The problem is not with coaches alone, it’s a culture everyone is guilty of. Rugby is a tough sport, for tough people. Yet too often people have been heralded as heroes for playing on after taking a heavy knock to the head, risking further knocks. That is not bravery but stupidity.
Rory Lamont claimed that he saw many teammates cheat concussion tests so that they could play before safely ready. Hape explains there is a test all English club players have to do at the beginning of the season and if they take a knock to the head they have to match that score to be passed fit. In this case many players cheat the test by underscoring initially so they can be passed fit to play. At Montpeiller the test surmounted to merely a few questions about how you felt. Hape admits after getting knocked out in a game for London Irish, he passed it off as a light bang, playing the next week where he was again knocked out cold. The results of his brain scans were shocking and he was forced to spend 8 weeks on the touchline.
It is the nature of ultra-competitive sport and reflects much about our unrelenting modern day society too. Few would be as eager to continue with a broken leg or gallons of blood pouring down their face. Bravery is people like Hape, who accepts the risks and has retired. Courage is accepting the problem.
While concussion is the most dangerous, injuries in general are a problem, at Toulon Lamont claims that he had a broken scaphoid the whole time he was there, yet the club refused to get a scan of it, playing it down as insignificant, which ultimately could have led to far worse outcomes in later life. Hape admitted to the pressure he felt to pay on a big contract at Montpeiller, where the coaches didn’t care about your later life, but merely the now, where you were earning however much so should turn out. For Hape after 2 successive knocks at Montpeiller things got so bad he couldn’t remember his PIN number. He needed high-caffiene sports drinks, smelling salts, Panadol and all manner of other drugs to keep away the fatigue and dizziness so he could play, and he did for four months. Four months a ‘zombie’.
The constant fear of knocks meant Hape avoided rucks and naturally with the niggling in the back of his mind his performances dropped and he too was dropped from the team. An event that brought relief. Relief that he could rest his battered brain. On his return after 3 weeks he got knocked out without any head contact in training, and in the game was out like a light from his first tackle. When his coach grilled him about his performances he was shocked when he learnt the truth of the numerous concussions.
Brain tests followed and revealed his mental capacity was just above that of someone with learning difficulties and was so swollen that a mere tap to the body could knock him out. He had to retire immediately. Yet Montpeiller were adamant that he could recover if rested for a couple of months. Hape himself refused to give in, telling no one he had retired adamant he could come back. Nevertheless Hape realised the risk he was taking and retired. Having tackled depression and migraines he has moved on to studying a BA Degree in Leadership and Management.
‘I’m not telling my story because I want sympathy. I’m telling it because this is an issue people, particularly young players, need to know about. More people need to speak out about it, tell the truth if they are suffering. Most players won’t, though, for fear of being thought of as soft or because of the financial pressures’
Hape surmises: the mentality needs to change.
Concussion cannot be prevented, but its effects can definitely be stemmed. It is heartening the support Hape has received from players around the world, and it is encouraging that he was brave enough to retire before things escalated even further. Likewise, BBC Sport and even the Daily Mail have worked to publicise the issue of concussion, it is something people are becoming aware of, but it is too late for some. When sport is increasingly making use of technology and becoming more scientific everyday how can we still remain grounded in the past and ignoring such a serious issue plaguing our beautiful sport? The issue needs to continue to be studied of course but while this happens the IRB has to take a stand, grow a pair – I mean its rugby, and usually that’s mandatory – crack down on this culture, toughening up on concussion measures: implementing better on field tests and longer mandatory recovery periods for concussed players.
Recognise and remove
On 5th June the IRB website posted an article stating:
‘Concussion is an issue that affects all sports and it is important that everyone in rugby recognises the symptoms of concussion and removes from playing or training any player with clear or suspected symptoms.’
Their key message is ‘recognise and remove’. This policy is all well and good in theory but it doesn’t work in practice not in the culture of rugby. Nevertheless, they seem as aware of this as they should:
‘Any time cultural change is required, the process is never quick. But it is possible. It used to be socially acceptable to drink and drive but that is not the case any longer. And it used to be acceptable within sport to return to play even though you’d had your “bell rung”. This, too, is changing as the full short-term and long-term dangers associated with concussive head injuries come to light.’
So as we recognise and remove to save people today from the effects of concussion the culture in rugby, among other elite sports, at all levels needs to change if the headache that is concussion is to be removed from the game.