More focus on concussion, not high tackles

Date published: December 18 2016

Wednesday saw yet another high-profile disciplinary hearing at World Rugby, with Dylan Hartley being served up a six-week suspension, and more changes to the organisation’s stance on concussion.

Yet rugby’s ultimate governing body can still go one step further.

Hartley’s stiff-arm tackle in the third round of the Champions Cup last Friday has probably been the most talked-about event in rugby this week, with many now questioning his England captaincy and Lions place.

There is little to defend him on, nor is the point of this article to do so. But the scrutiny over Hartley’s record, and pursuit of a suspension combined with clamping down on dangerous play, has in some ways distracted from the need to improve on how to handle concussion in the sport.

World Rugby’s strict discipline of players committing illegal tackles sometimes feels like a witch hunt, and not only does their approach have a negative impact on players’ careers – it does not give enough prominence to the most important aspect of concussion management: recognising when a player has suffered a head injury and removing them from the field.

Admittedly, the World Rugby website contains some videos explaining the symptoms of concussion and encouraging players with these symptoms to leave the pitch but their latest statement shows the organisation’s main focus is still the tackle itself, rather than what happens afterwards.

It could be argued World Rugby are approaching the issue from the wrong angle, following the media storm that surrounded George North’s possible loss of consciousness earlier this month.

Rulemakers are being very clear on their zero tolerance approach to dangerous tackles, but this is not as important as a zero tolerance approach to players returning to the field after a blow to the head.

One way to achieve this is to reinforce the referee’s power to remove players from the game if they feel it is not safe for them to continue.

This is already written into the rules of rugby but not often enforced. Though some may consider this too much responsibility for the referee, who is already under a massive amount of pressure to make the right decisions.

Another idea is to have a medical professional sitting with the TMO, watching for signs of head injuries.

One more alternative involves Purdue University, who are looking to develop an app which can scan players’ pupils to detect whether they have suffered a concussion. If successful, this could solve the difficulty of detecting concussion right down to grassroots level.

Others claim that tougher sanctions are required for coaches and medical staff who do not remove players with a suspected concussion, though this seems unfair when the system for assessing concussion offered up by World Rugby still has its imperfections.

In fact, since the incident with George North many have questioned the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) – World Rugby’s procedure to determine whether a player should continue after such an injury. This is the area in which they should be pushing for zero tolerance.

If a player is being subjected to a HIA, there is a chance they may be concussed. The risks posed by concussion are so great that even the slightest suspicion of one should mean removal from the field, rendering the assessment redundant.

In fact, Dr Barry O’Driscoll, a former member of World Rugby’s medical committee, said of George North, “If there was no HIA test, they’d have taken him off and he’d have stayed off.”

On top of all this, the statement from World Rugby contained a worrying statistic: “72 per cent of HIA incidents in the tackle occur to the tackler”. Yet how often do we see a player accused of a dangerous tackle assessed for a head injury? Despite this statistic, World Rugby made no mention of checking both parties involved in illegal tackles for concussion.

Wednesday’s announcement did at least provide some solace for those who simply go into contact at the wrong time or angle, making an illegal tackle by accident. World Rugby has redefined the categories for illegal tackles: from January 3, referees must make a decision on whether an illegal tackle was ‘reckless’ or ‘accidental’.

A tackle becomes ‘reckless’ if it is thought that the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of contact with the head when they entered the tackle. An ‘accidental’ tackle may result in just a penalty, whereas the minimum punishment for a ‘reckless’ tackle is a yellow card.

This is a step in the right direction in terms of the negative consequences one illegal tackle can have on a player’s career. By officially deeming some tackles ‘accidental’, World Rugby is beginning to recognise that individual players cannot always be held accountable for the risks involved in the sport as the game itself is inherently dangerous.

World Rugby is continuing to progress on the issue of head injuries then, but its strategy remains flawed. In terms of awareness of the risks involved in rugby, campaigners have made considerable progress. Playing through a concussion was once a celebrated show of strength, now it is a sure source of media backlash for both players and clubs.

Awareness is no longer the main concern though, nor are illegal tackles. The latest changes to rugby’s rules show that World Rugby is open to tweaking its approach to head injuries, but also that it is too focused on only one part of the solution.

Ensuring any player even remotely suspected of having a concussion is removed from the field must be next on the organisation’s agenda.

by Becky Grey