Planet Rugby

Fritz farce: Toulouse accountable

10th May 2014 23:21

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Toulouse centre Florian Fritz leaves the pitch bleeding

Controversy: Florian Fritz

Guy Novès and his Toulouse staff have a serious case to answer after the jaw-dropping Florian Fritz fiasco at Stade Ernest Wallon.

On the same weekend the best rugby player in the world, Kieran Read, was correctly stood down from Super Rugby action by the Crusaders staff after sustaining his second concussion of the season, their Toulouse counterparts played the role of judge, jury and executioner in one of the most disgusting and dangerous incidents I have ever seen play out on any sports field.

By now, most of our readers will have seen the footage of stupefied Toulouse centre Florian Fritz in the aftermath of the thumping head knock he sustained via high-speed collision with the knee of Racing Métro second-row, Francois van der Merwe, in Friday's Top 14 playoff.

Bloodied and dazed, one of French rugby's hardest nuts staggered from the field surrounded by several medics, his forehead drizzled with claret and legs more befitting a pantomime puppet. All that was missing were the cartoon stars orbiting the midfielder's aching skull.

But more shocking than the blood and gore and upsetting scenes as a bewildered Fritz tried manfully to quell the gaggle of doctors leading him to the sidelines before crumpling to the turf, was the conduct of Toulouse head coach, Guy Novès.

As his star centre sat on a Stade Ernest Wallon treatment table, surrounded by staffers, Novès prowled and paced up and down the tunnel, apparently rousing the player to get back on the field, pronto. This was astonishing for all the wrong reasons.

We watched in horror a year ago as a similarly vacant George Smith was led reeling by his elbows from the ANZ Stadium after clashing heads violently with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard, only to be passed fit to return five minutes later.

It is perhaps distasteful to weigh up the respective virtues and severities of two such gross derelictions of the duty of care, but when I do draw comparisons between Friday's farce, which bore all the hallmarks of its predecessor, and the Smith scandal, I invariably come to the conclusion that the former was worse. Here's why.

Show me any player, elite or otherwise, let alone a lynchpin of his teams as Fritz is to Toulouse, let alone a man who has just had his bell rung so vehemently, let alone one taking part in arguably the biggest game of the season, who would voluntarily remove himself from the action. It won't be easy; players just want to play - shocking, I know.

So it must fall then upon the shoulders of medical and coaching staff to save these stricken and battle-hardened individuals from themselves, as perceptive England and Ireland doctors did for Geoff Parling and Brian O'Driscoll earlier this season.

I am saddened whenever I see any player backchat a referee, engage in deliberate foul play or otherwise tarnish the reputation of what I believe to be the finest sport on the planet. But my hurt and anguish runs far deeper on the odd occasion the tables are turned and that player is so spectacularly failed by the very people who should safeguard him from such jeopardy.

For make no mistake about it, the Toulouse medics who herded Fritz from the field, and bowed to the glowering omnipotence of Novès in allowing him to return risked his life in doing so. It is no longer the case that sports medics, officials or coaching staff at any level can plead ignorance to the inherent danger posed by head injury.

Recent very public revelations in neuroscience and neuropathology have taught us more about the profound long-term effects of repeated head trauma, while the tragic consequences of a second or third blow to the head post-concussion must serve as an almighty wake-up call.

The cautious treatment of the twice-concussed Read - and many of his colleagues south of the Equator - is to be commended for the message it sends to those across the game far below the echelons of Super Rugby. But rugby as a sport must grow self-confident and mature enough that such a conservative approach becomes gospel, so that we do not feel compelled to laud what should become a well-trodden path.

Novès' motivation was clear, yet his actions were prehistoric. I do not proclaim to be an expert in legal matters, but based on what we often see in other fields regarding duty of care, I'd go as far to suggest a strong case could be mounted against him and his staff for what was at best, indefensible ignorance, and at worse, professional negligence.

We can at least take comfort in the level of outcry this time around, and in the recent education initiatives rolled out by the IRB. But I am warming to the view that it may take high-profile litigation or a major legal wrangle within the sport to have us all singing from the same conservative concussion songsheet.

For which scenario makes for the greatest impact, or generates the loudest headlines? The throwaway press release that states Kieran Read will not play this weekend? Or the sight of a bleeding star thrown to the wolves by those whose desire to win a rugby match superseded their duty to protect his health?

It will be a sad day if and when it arrives, but legal intervention may just prove the tonic rugby needs to clear its head.

By Jamie Lyall

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