Who can we blame for concussion issues in rugby?

Concussion in rugby – Who’s to blame?

With two rounds of the RBS 6 Nations now completed, focus really should be on some of the excellent rugby on show. However, this year’s tournament has already been marred by a topic that many have been unwilling to properly discuss over recent years: concussion.

It was the very first game of the tournament that highlighted the problem that still exists. TV replays revealed that Wales winger George North was knocked out twice in the same match and despite taken for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) after the first hit, came back on to play the rest of the match. Although not reporting any concussive symptoms, North was left out of the following week’s game against Wales.

So who can be blamed for the concussion issue?

Naturally, fans and pundits alike were quick to put the blame on World Rugby and the current concussion protocols, arguing that the HIA is not thorough enough and is actually fairly easy to pass. The assessment sees the player answer five “simple” questions before testing their short-term memory. If they can then walk five metres along a straight line, then they are allowed to come back onto the pitch.

But can the protocols really be blamed? After all, not every concussion produces symptoms, allowing many to go undetected. It is also possible to have a delayed concussion, meaning any possible symptoms will take time to develop. World Rugby could, of course, take a more extreme stance on the issue by not allowing anyone to continue playing if concussion is suspected, but would anyone really want to see that?

So, the governing bodies may not be the issue, maybe could it be the desires of the coaches to have their best players on the field? In last year’s Top 14 quarter-final between Toulouse and Racing Metro, the home side’s outside centre Florian Fritz came off for an HIA after his then bloodied head make contact with a defender’s knee. Unable to walk properly and even needing to take a seat half-way off the pitch, he surprised all to return just 15 minutes later, but did not survive long.

Toulouse coach, Guy Noves, as well as the club’s medics were attacked in the sport’s media for actually allowing Fritz to return when he was quite clearly concussed. At the end of the day, it is the coaches’ decision as to who is on the field at any time and player welfare should be the priority.

Of course, most coaches simply want what is best for their team and in such a high-pressure game as a quarter-final, it is possible to see the logic behind Noves’ decision. But for coaches and medics alike there is one factor which makes their decisions even tougher; the players.

I know from experience that the last thing you want as a player is to be taken off, especially when adrenaline makes you believe that there is nothing wrong with you. If we return to George North, he chose not to make the medics aware of his second unconscious moment and so stayed on the pitch whilst everyone in the stadium remained unaware of the situation. He, like Fritz was determined to stay on the park (hence his reaction to being dropped against Scotland) and it resulted in an injured person staying on the field.

Although it seems to be World Rugby taking the blame, I still believe that it is the players that should be accused. Many still choose to ignore information about the dangers of concussion and so put themselves at risk by playing on. How long can we let this continue?

Image: © Ruairidh Campbell, Young Perspective. All right reserved. 

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Ruairidh Campbell
Based in the Scottish Borders/Glasgow, Ruairidh has written extensively on everything from rugby to politics with work published in publications including the Scottish Rugby Union's website, Scottish Field Magazine and Edinburgh Rugby's match-day programmes.
Ruairidh Campbell

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