Along with the usual yellow and red cards carried in all games of rugby, referees who control matches for the Wellington Rugby Football Union this season have begun to carry a third card – a blue one – out onto the field with them. However, the blue card is not to sanction infringements or for foul play, but it exists as a ‘player welfare measure’ around concussion and head trauma.
The blue card process was first introduced to New Zealand rugby by the Northland Rugby Union in 2014, and Wellington has become the second union to follow suit domestically. Initially it will be used in the College Sport Wellington Premiership which started last Saturday, and is to be introduced in Wellington’s second-round of Premier Jubilee, Hardham Cups and Premier Reserve competitions when they commence on June 11. The change has the full backing of Wellington Regional schools, organizations and the New Zealand Rugby union.
World Rugby laws give the referee the right to ‘prevent an injured player from continuing’ (Law 3.10) and that is the reasoning behind this additional card. In New Zealand, our Domestic Safety Law Variations take that a step further, with referees compelled to ‘require a player who they suspect has suffered a concussion to leave the field’ and cannot return to the game. No proof that the player is actually concussed is required, as that is a ‘medical diagnosis’ very few referees or coaches at community or school level are qualified to make.
The Head Injury Assessment process that exists at the professional levels [Super Rugby/Mitre10 Cup] is not operated at the community level, mainly because it can’t be guaranteed that the resources required for it will always be available.
All referees undergo basic concussion awareness training as part of the annual required RugbySmart course, as do coaches at all levels. Wellington’s referees have also undergone an additional training session with Dr Theo Dorfling; who is the Hurricanes medical director, in preparation for the introduction of the Blue card this season.
What the Blue Card does?
What the Blue card does; in addition to the existing process, is that it formalizes the process of managing the players return to play, as explained by the WRFU’s manager of community rugby Will Caccia-Birch:
“A player’s decision around when they are fit to train or play after a suspected head knock has often been left to their own judgement, or that of their own team’s coaching or management staff. The blue card takes that responsibility out of their hands.
“Once the blue card is issued, Wellington Rugby can formally track a player’s movements during their recovery. The player must gain a medical certificate from a health professional, and then provide it to the WRFU before they are eligible to return to the field.”
In the grades where it will be operating, the referee will instigate the process by first showing the player a blue card in the ‘same manner’ that they would show a yellow or red card. On that judgement, the player in question must be removed immediately by team management. Post game, the referee and a representative of that players club then each complete an incident report which notifies the WRFU.
Under the protocol instigated, the player must be first assessed within 24 hours of the games end, and then again before resuming training and before playing in any WRFU endorsed match. Penalties exist if a team breaches that protocol, which can include the removal of competition points. The current existing mandatory stand-down period for concussion is 21 days–or 23 days if the player is under 19.
It’s an important step in player welfare management that the WRFU and College Sport Wellington are taking with the introduction of the Blue card. It comes at a time where the long-term effect of a single concussion, let alone multiple ones, is an issue that many sports are dealing with and trying to understand, particularly at the youth level. The process mitigates that to an extent, taking the player out of contact until clearance is obtained and reducing the possibility of a repeat head knock. Those can be extremely debilitating, and in some cases – like that of Canadian schoolgirl player Rowan Stringer who suffered two head knocks only days apart in 2013 – can be fatal.
The impact of any injury is crucial to any players development, and at this early stage it is important that the stakeholders are pro-active. While it is a hazard that exists in sport; any sport, New Zealand Rugby have had several high profile cases, including the former Lions and Hurricanes player Conrad Smith (pictured) who had several incidents during his domestic and International career.
Other provincial unions are watching what transpires in Wellington over the next few weeks, with plans to roll it out in their jurisdictions, either next season or 2018. Wellington is also likely to expand it to all Club and College grades next year. The Blue card has many positives, in bringing the decision to now include the on-field officials.
RugbySmart is a preventative program backed by New Zealand Rugby and the ACC (Accident Corporation) who are provide 24-hour no-fault personal accident insurance cover.
Scott MacLean is an active referee with the Wellington Rugby Referees Association and writes for Last Word On Sports from a match officials perspective.
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