It’s always a hot topic of discussion, but the subject of concussion in rugby continues to overshadow the sport. More and more high-profile players are voicing their opinions on the protocol and regulation that surround concussion, which brings it even more into the spotlight. Gone are the days where it was seen as part and parcel of the game and now head injuries are at the top of the list when it comes to health and safety in rugby.
Players welfare is paramount, and statistics show, year upon year, that head injuries in rugby are occurring more often, highlighting the fact that something must be done. A recent campaign by the Welsh Rugby Union saw a document, compiled by Wales centre (and qualified doctor) Jamie Roberts and WRU medical officer Prav Mathema, launched in order to educate coaches, officials and players nationwide about the symptoms and importance of correctly treating concussion. But is this enough?
This subject was at the heart of a heated debate that derived from Florian Fritz’s injury earlier this year. In the fight for a Top 14 semi-final place against Racing Metro, the Toulouse centre smashed his head on the knee of Francois van der Merwe during the first half, leaving him on the floor for minutes. With blood streaming down his face, he stumbled to the sideline where he collapsed and was then assisted off into the medical room. Toulouse coach Guy Noves was seen talking to Fritz, evidently urging him to return to the match where his team were losing, before the dazed centre made his way back onto the pitch to play the rest of the half. This sparked controversy and commentators deemed it ‘bonkers’ for allowing a player who was obviously inadequate to play to carry on with such a serious injury. Without belittling the issue of the player’s health, it came as no surprise that Fritz was reluctant to play to his full ability, not going in for tackles or putting his head over the ball in fear of causing more injury. The resounding outcome of debates among the rugby community was that he should not have been allowed back on, and the act of what seems to be Noves insisting Fritz to return to play was unethical and dangerous.
Lewis Moody is probably one of the better-known faces to be backing the campaign of highlighting concussion in sport. He has already said that he is donating his brain to medical science when he dies so that research can be carried out to further the knowledge of the effects of concussion after playing rugby for years. Moody admitted that he has lost count of the number of times he has sustained a serious head injury, and hopes that more can be done to promote the seriousness of concussion, sooner rather than later. Another high-profile name to comment on this is Alex Corbisiero, who revealed:
“Our concussion protocols can be laughable at times. Cogsport (the computerised test used to assess an injured player’s fitness to resume rugby) is the last hurdle people need to go through, but you can pass that concussed or not concussed. I don’t think it’s an acceptable guideline.”
Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a way of diagnosing concussion by a breath test. So far, the only way of truly knowing whether the brain had sustained trauma was by having a brain scan or full assessment by a specialist. Now it has been found that chemicals, which are released by the brain shortly after injury, go into the bloodstream and then the molecules enter the lungs, meaning they can be detected in a breath. The test would be a quick solution to initially determine if a player can continue or whether they should remain on the sidelines. Yet to go through more tests on athletes, it could be a while before anything like this is used widely amongst the sport, but it gives hope that work is being done to tackle this issue.
On the RFU’s website, it states that studies have shown that professional players, on average, get concussion one in every six games among all the players involved. At amateur level, the rate drops to one in every 21 games. This might not sound much, but it can quickly increase depending on how much contact is done in training. The Rugby Players Association said they wanted clubs to lower the amount of contact training done from game to game, as well as have designated resting periods between seasons. However, with international games reducing the time some players have out of season, can the latter request by the RPA ever be met?
This leads onto the case of England’s Geoff Parling, who has recently had a run of concussion related injuries. He missed out on this year’s Six Nations tournament and took a blow to the head during Leicester Tigers’ pre-season friendly against Edinburgh. The British and Irish Lions lock was rested for three weeks before playing two matches, one of them being last week’s emphatic defeat to Bath where he was taken off with another head injury. Now, fears are that he could be forced to retire, like many other professionals in the past, due to the repeated bouts of concussion. Tigers’ Director of Rugby, Richard Cockerill disclosed that despite hopes for Parling to make a full recovery, he may be out for some time:
“The bigger picture is Geoff’s well-being more than playing.”
It is safe to say there is a lot more research to be done, but having advanced from the times where it was taken quite lightly, there is optimism that everyone, not just in rugby but throughout sport in general, can be more educated on concussion and the importance of correct protocol. Undoubtedly, an athlete’s welfare is fundamental and should come before any game.
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