Rugby has taken huge leaps forward in recent years when it comes to concussion, however there is still a long way to go before the issue is properly dealt with by the powers that be.
We have seen a number of high profile incidents in the last few months with Leigh Halfpenny and Mike Brown both being withdrawn during the Six Nations after taking serious blows to the head. Unfortunately the same can not be said of George North.
North took two knocks to the head during Wales’ Six Nations opener against England, yet the Welsh coaching staff did not deem this sufficient to withdraw him from the field of play. We are know seeing the after-effects of this with him now being rested for a four week period after being knocked-out playing for Northampton.
In contrast, the coaching teams at the IRFU and Racing Metro had the common sense to withdraw star Fly Half from contact rugby for an extended period after he suffered repeated concussions last year. Leicester Tigers and England lock Geoff Parling also went through a similar rest period after taking several blows to the head.
Unfortunately it seems that whilst some teams are willing to put their players health first, others are still some way behind. I would therefore suggest a three step procedure that all sides must adhere to in order to protect players from longer term damage. This could help to ensure rugby does not find itself on the end of a major lawsuit, like the one the NFL is currently dealing with.
It is important however, that whatever happens to help reduce the risk of head injuries, does not come at the expense of players being reigned in, or penalised for making huge hits as we all love to see hits like Courtney Lawes effort on Jules Plisson during the Six Nations. Based on this, here is my three step plan based on the acronym RAR;
The first step is to introduce a mandatory rest period for any player found to have suffered a concussion either during a game or training. This would start at a minimum one week period for a first time incident, and would increase for each subsequent incident over a 12 month period. This would mean any player suffering two incidents in a year would receive one month off all contact rugby, three incidents would receive two months, and four incidents would see a 12 month rest period.
This may not be popular with some teams who want their players available at every opportunity, however when it comes to head injuries, the issue cannot be taken seriously enough. It would also avoid the issue of players pretending to be ok, or from clubs trying to rush players back. This process ensures all players receive the same treatment and are afforded the necessary recovery time. The key issue here being that repeat blows to the head can cause much more significant damage than in a single isolated incident.
World Rugby have done a great job of late in promoting the issue of concussion and ensuring that players and clubs have more information about the potential issues. There is still plenty more that can be done however. Officials should all have to complete a mandatory training assessment to ensure they fully understand concussion. This would allow them to make on-field decisions about whether a player is withdrawn or not, thereby taking the decision out of the player or coaches hands who may have a conflict of interest.
It would also be beneficial to train close family members in how to spot signs of concussion. This means they can spot signs of concussions in players that coaches or team-mates may miss during training. The awareness courses should also be filtered down to the lower levels of rugby to ensure that even players and coaches in amateur rugby clubs are fully aware of the signs of concussion, and in how to deal with players who have received a knock to the head.
The most obvious of this three step process is that of removal. The idea being that any player who receives a knock to the head that requires a stop in play, or the assistance of medical staff is immediately removed from play and not allowed to return to the pitch. Whilst the concussion assessment protocol has gone some way to helping in this area, enforced removal is the safest way to ensure players to not receive additional damage.
We regularly here of issues surrounding players being able to fake concussion assessments, or of coaches failing to withdraw players who have received knocks to the head. By immediately removing any player in danger of having picked up a concussion (enforced by referees), it removes all potential conflicts of interest. Lets face it, most players and coaches want their best side out on the field at every opportunity.
Do you think more needs to be done to address the issue of concussion in rugby?