Brendan Fanning: One step forward, another step back in rugby's attempt to make the game safer
Admirable efforts to combat concussion are offset by failure to crack down on illegal tackles
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
In an Irish club two weeks ago a training session was ending with a fairly typical Thursday night team run. To give it a little extra realism, bags were replaced with bodies as a team higher up the food chain stepped in to offer some defence.
It was far from full contact - match day was a couple of days away - but as is the way with these things it found a level of physicality that was acceptable to both parties.
Just before it ended the coach noticed one of his players on one knee in the backfield, taking a breather. By the time he got to him the player was almost, but not quite, recovered from a glancing blow he had taken to the head. With only a minute left on the clock they wrapped it up there, and headed to the changing room.
At that point the physio took a look at the player, who had zero symptoms of anything untoward. The physio was a bit in the dark as he had been in the medical room when the injury happened, and didn't have much evidence to go on. A long conversation followed with the coaches. The player was withdrawn from the game that weekend. And, according to the protocol, the next two weekends after that. In effect, he would be out till after Christmas.
This simply would not have happened even five years ago. Back then the player would have waited until his head cleared, and then carried on playing. If he were asked how he was feeling afterwards, then that would have been the extent of the examination. No one would have thought any more of it.
Last weekend in the Aviva we had a variation on the same theme. In a gladiatorial contest where the stakes for New Zealand were perhaps the highest since they won the World Cup in London 16 months ago, thinking clearly was not easy. In that environment everything happens at high speed; and everything that happens forms one or more pieces in the jigsaw that presents the overall picture.
The tone had been set by the time CJ Stander, at the end of the first quarter, stepped into a head-high challenge from Israel Dagg, who clipped him with his shoulder. Stander wasn't long about getting back on his feet and racing to catch up with the action. The team medics had their own catching up to do.
At the highest level we expect the highest standards, and thankfully this was an example of them in action. In the first place Stander's bang in the head was picked up by one of the medics on the sideline. International rugby is now like a big department store determined to wipe out shoplifting: there are eyes everywhere.
In addition to the doctor and two physios who do the running on and off the field, there are another two doctors and a physio on the sideline with access to instant match playback on a laptop. So if anyone in that extended group sees something they reckon needs another look, then they call for it. Which is what happened with Stander.
So they had to quickly review the incident and then wait until a break in play to catch up with the man in question. In the press box we could hear referee Jaco Peyper, via the ref-link, telling Stander he had to go off. It was like a kid being called in from a street game at the vital moment, because his tea was ready.
In the Head Injury Assessment that followed in the medical suite down the corridor from the changing room, Stander seemingly was very close to 100 per cent. "He was completely pissed off not to be allowed back on the field," one of the staff said.
The expedient thing would have been, a few minutes earlier, to look the other way. Stander, outwardly, had recovered and was mad for action, so crack on. Here was one of Ireland's most combative and passionate players, who in his 21 minutes on the field had carried seven times and completed four of five attempted tackles. Johnny Sexton had already hobbled off with a hamstring injury. Ireland needed to lose one of their primary carriers like they needed a bang on the head.
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We are 12 months out from a decision on who will host the 2023 World Cup, and according to the bookies Ireland are clear favourites. In a year when pollsters and turf accountants have regularly shared the same uncomfortable space, this may not be a good thing.
The official launch of that bid two weeks ago was notable for the political heavyweights who attended. Ireland Inc want the gig which, unlike the Five Ringed Circus, does not have to hobble a country financially and leave it with more bricks and mortar than it knows what to do with. Dublin Chamber of Commerce claim it could be worth €2bn to the economy. It would be the most scenic home run for Tourism Ireland. And it's something we, as a nation, would do very well.
What we kept wondering about, though, was what rugby would look like by the time 2023 rolls around. Clearly the brutality of last weekend's game makes this topical, but it's not as if the subject has gone away since raising its ugly head, especially over the last five years.
You didn't need to be Nostradamus to see that men in wigs and gowns would be on the case before too long, and sure enough last August former Leinster player Cillian Willis was first out of the traps. He is taking a case against Sale, where his career finished prematurely, on the basis of clinical negligence. Former Canada second-row Jamie Cudmore is on the same trail - ironically enough, given the amount of digs he threw in his career. He is suing Clermont on the same basis as Willis.
Most recently the parents of Ben Robinson, who died tragically as a result of concussion in a schools match in Carrickfergus in 2011, have taken a case in which a group of defendants are named.
If you are a rugby employer, staying out of court is good for business. An article last year by barrister Joanne Kirby in the Entertainment and Sports Law Journal put this into perspective. "Health and Safety legislation in the UK and Ireland is similar in expression and effect," she wrote. "It sets out the duty of employers to ensure - so far as is reasonably practicable - that their work systems protect the health, safety and welfare of all their employees."
So, like Major League Baseball in the US for example, rugby employers need to carry out risk assessments and then act accordingly. In baseball's case that was no more dramatic than curtailing time for individual pitchers to reduce risk of burnout. In rugby it's a bigger deal.
World Rugby has concluded that the tackle is the primary problem, especially where tackler and tackled player are both standing tall. So that's their focus. However, they are at pains to point out, as unhelpful, what they consider a wave of emotionally charged criticism that plays fast and loose with the facts. They conclude that injury rates have been largely static since 2002; that below the age of 14 injuries are on a par with soccer and hockey; and that since the crouch-bind-set process was introduced serious injuries at the scrum have roughly halved.
Moreover, they say the culture surrounding concussion has changed. And as illustrated at the top of this piece, they are right. What needs to follow is a law change around the tackle that increases safety without castrating the game itself. It seems inevitable that lowering the tackle line will be with us sooner rather than later. And while it would be likely to improve things, it's simplistic to think it would be transformative.
In the meantime, World Rugby are under constant attack over the inconsistency in judgements handed down on the field by referees, and subsequently by the game's disciplinary process. Interestingly only two days ago they appointed Christopher Quinlan QC as the new chief judicial officer to replace Tim Gresson, who is retiring. A new set of tougher sanctions was also issued by World Rugby on Friday - they come into force in January - but still Quinlan will have his hands full trying to establish harmony among the different systems that operate around the rugby world.
It was hard to fathom, for example, how a matter of days after World Rugby had re-emphasised the need to clamp down on high shots, Jaco Peyper allowed Malakai Fekitoa to stay on the field last weekend. The post-match process for Peyper would have featured him writing his own review of the game; then an informal conversation with Alain Rolland, World Rugby's high performance manager of referees; and finally a formal review with another assessor.
It would be a surprise if Rolland didn't find serious fault with Peyper's performance. What seems to have been missed in the Sam Cane incident with Robbie Henshaw was that if Peyper deemed it worthy of a penalty then he should have also produced a card.
Better still, in another jurisdiction a few days later, Northampton's Calum Clark escaped with a three-week ban for an assault with the point of his elbow on Donncha O'Callaghan in a Premiership tie the night before Ireland played New Zealand. "The panel found this was not a premeditated act but an intentional strike to the head of an opponent that merited a mid-range entry point of five weeks," an RFU statement said. "The player's remorse before the panel was genuine and heartfelt."
The written judgement has yet to be published, so it is unclear how an entry point of five weeks ended up as a suspension of just three for a player with grievous previous. Four years ago Clark got 32 weeks for deliberately hyper-extending the arm of a defenceless opponent, which resulted in a fracture and ligament damage for the victim. Will Clark's next victim have a case against the RFU for allowing him back on the field?
Changing the culture around concussion - 'recognise and remove' - has been a step forward for rugby. Yet evidently it doesn't lead us further away from the dangers of the game itself, or closer to a point where players feel protected by those who referee and police it. If rugby doesn't fix itself then others will step in, and the human and financial cost will be enormous.
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