More patience, clarity required with concussion

Date published: January 22 2017

The confusion surrounding World Rugby’s evolving high tackle directives and concussion management protocols is reaching critical levels and producing worrying reactions from people in all areas of the rugby community.

The main stories following a weekend of rugby no longer deal with exceptional individual performances or surprising victories. Instead, fans are bombarded with the latest round of controversy regarding high tackles and HIAs.

Discussions may focus on whether a high tackle was worthy of a red, footage of players staying on the field after being floored by a knock to the head or the often fruitless union enquiries that follow.

All of this leads to frustration on the part of certain players, commentators and coaches- which is understandable but ultimately unacceptable. Undoubtedly, World Rugby needs to be clearer on their recommendations when it comes to head injuries and high tackles.

Issues with the HIA, which seems to become more redundant with every passing weekend, also need to be resolved. Until then though, it is the responsibility of all those in rugby to compromise and respect World Rugby’s initiatives so that players can be kept safe.

The danger is that as the rugby universe becomes increasingly frustrated with this lack of clarity, avoiding concussion seems an impossible task. When there is no obvious solution, it’s hard to feel motivated to go out of your way to solve a problem.

This could explain the more relaxed attitude of those praising referees who shy away from the strictest punishments for illegal tackles. Take the Champions Cup match between Clermont and Bordeaux-Bègles: BT Sport commentators lauded Nigel Owens’ quick decisions on high tackles as well as his avoidance of red cards. Nobody enjoys the fact that the new directives mean more players are being sent off, but disregarding them is dangerous.

As well as commentators, it appears some coaches and players find tackle directives and HIA procedures a nuisance, having too much impact on play. If this is the case, can World Rugby really expect that their recommendations are being followed outside of matches? It would certainly be interesting to learn how often players have undergone HIAs after taking hits to the head in training.

More concerning than this exasperation with protocols, though, is the flippant manner in which certain individuals refer to possible head injuries. After James Haskell’s infamous 35-second return for Wasps, Dai Young told Sky Sports the flanker was ‘totally fine’. Young said this hours after the incident.

World Rugby states that “a concussion following a head injury cannot be excluded until an assessment is completed at 36-48 hours post injury.” So how could Young ensure the public of Haskell’s health and even suggest that the 31-year-old was a possibility for Wasps’ Champions Cup clash against Toulouse a mere six days later?

Of course, maybe Wasps’ Director of Rugby was simply reluctant to admit a weakness in his side ahead of the game against a French powerhouse. But perhaps we should also consider the possibility that more than a few individuals are ignorant of the intricacies of World Rugby’s concussion policies.

Although, until the organisation provides clubs with clearer advice on the matter coaches cannot be blamed. Players, clubs and fans are not being wilfully ignorant; the information on the World Rugby website is dense and complicated. In fact, concussion protocol comes in the form of an article published in the BMJ: not exactly accessible reading.

Further demonstration that World Rugby’s message is not quite getting through is the media storm currently surrounding Conor Murray. Munster now face investigation from Champions Cup organisers over their handling of Murray’s suspected injury sustained against Glasgow last Saturday.

Video footage of the scrum-half showed him lying motionless after tackling Tim Swinson but Murray passed a HIA and returned to the field after the event. World Rugby names ‘lying motionless on the ground’ as a sign of concussion and states that players should be permanently removed from play if concussion is suspected.

As such, Murray should have been permanently removed with no HIA. If the result of the investigation is anything other than this, World Rugby will be forced to recognise the lack of understanding that surrounds their regulations.

It’s time for rugby’s ultimate governing body to step up in terms of properly educating unions and ensuring concussion protocols and tackle directives are clear and easy to follow.

This must include further clarification of how certain specific situations fit into the categories of ‘reckless’ or ‘accidental’ contact with the head. This will make life easier for referees whose decisions have come under increasing pressure since the new directives were announced.

After a study published on January 9 revealed that head injuries significantly increase the risks of dementia, controlling concussion remains as crucial as ever. Now that we know the consequences of head injuries in rugby, we cannot ignore them.

Some may fear that changes to rugby’s rules are ruining the game we love, but it’s time to admit that without making these small changes now, rugby could become a real threat to players’ lives.

That is why concussion management must be seen as a shared responsibility. World Rugby must refine their rules and ensure that all those involved in rugby are clearly briefed on them. In the meantime, it is up to fans, players and coaches to be patient with rule changes until a suitable solution can be found.

by Becky Grey