NFL-style ‘injury spotters’ for rugby?

Date published: February 12 2015

In the wake of the latest concussion furore, should World Rugby follow the example of the NFL and introduce injury spotters?

The National Football League introduced 'injury spotters' at all games from 2012 to help alleviate the growing concern over head injuries within the sport.

The time for talking and gesturing is over, as the constant issue of concussive and sub-concussive injuries needs to be addressed. After more high profile cases this weekend involving Welsh winger George North and Irish hooker Rory Best, I believe World Rugby needs to follow American football’s lead and implement the “Eye in the Sky” system.

Social media went into over drive on Friday night during the Wales and England game in the Millennium Stadium after replays were shown of North being knocked unconscious by the head of teammate Richard Hibbard. This is not the first case of such an incident and neither will it be the last unless swift action is taken.

The concern highlighted from this game was that medical professionals pitch side cannot possibly see every incident throughout the 80-minutes. Technology must be utilised so the correct decision regarding player safety can be made. Wales had two medical professionals on either side of the pitch during the match who have since confirmed they both missed the incident but had they seen it they would have withdrawn North immediately.

Rugby must learn from American Football's use of technology. After a particularly brutal incident in 2011 game involving the Cleveland Browns Colt McCoy, when the quarterback was hit by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison but returned to the game without being checked for a concussion, the NFL sought to correct the issue by hiring independent injury spotters to observe the game from the stand and flag potentially serious injuries. Will the North incident be the Colt McCoy of rugby?

The spotter is an experienced athletic trainer who is hired, trained and paid by the NFL. He is not a neurologist or someone with extensive medical experience with head injuries. His role is to use his sporting knowledge to identify players who may have potentially incurred a significant injury, with a particular focus on knocks to the head, and relay this message to team medics so an examination of the player can take place.

The spotter operates from a booth within the stadium along with a video monitor and operator who can instantly replay game footage to examine potential head injury. They are in communication with team doctors through a telephone to the bench or walkie-talkie so a clear line of communication is established.

This system could be hugely beneficial in rugby given the large number of collisions in a single passage of play. No incident like the one involving North would go unnoticed. Of course a certain level of power would need to be assigned to these spotters who could potentially grade the level of severity of a suspected injury, agreed upon in new protocols, so the medical professionals on the ground would have no doubt as to how severe the incident was. Also a communication channel could be opened with the referee so play could be halted in cases of unseen serious injury issues.

The National Rugby League has looked into the possibility of adopting the injury spotter system given the high level of head injuries in the sport but has yet to implement it. The use of technology to help team’s medical professionals is in operation for some countries within union. Ireland for example currently employs an alternative system where pitch side monitors are used by team medics so they can access live action and replays in slow motion.

Team medics having access to a pitch side monitor is a step in the right direction but falls short of complete impartiality and objectivity. A dedicated independent spotter in the stand has the sole purpose of identifying seriously injured players and relaying this information to the medics. They have no bias to either side or daily dealings with certain players. They simply take each case at its merit with the player’s safety their primary concern. A system incorporating injury spotters and pitch side monitors for medics could be the optimal solution.

A trial period for either systems should at very least be considered. The NFL have been forced to act given the enormously high lawsuit former players have successfully taken against the organisation due to a lack of information on the risks of head injuries in the sport. The time for World Rugby to act swiftly and comprehensively is long overdue and hopefully scenes like that witnessed on Friday night will be a thing of the past.

By Hugh Foyle