Friday 24 February 2017

Alan Quinlan: Yes, rugby matters but so does a person's life

Coaches need to get their heads around concussion before it's too late

Alan Quinlan

Anthony Martial’s head injury may help deal with concussion in professional sport with greater clarity. Picture: Getty Images
Anthony Martial’s head injury may help deal with concussion in professional sport with greater clarity. Picture: Getty Images

It will be a healthy irony if the damage caused to Anthony Martial and Dan Mugford's heads over the last week allows professional sport to deal with the thorny issue of concussion with greater clarity.

While the Martial incident - where the Manchester United player was allowed stay on the field seven minutes after suffering concussion - has received plenty of coverage, the Mugford one has almost been kept a secret.

But what happened was frightening. Having suffered an injury in a key period of their game against Gloucester, Mugford, the Sale out-half, was replaced by Mike Phillips, a scrum-half.

As a result, Sale lost momentum and eventually the match, leaving Steve Diamond, their director of rugby, to publicly question the sport's Head Injury Assessment (HIA) regulations.

"All you need to have is a slap on the head and they have you off the field for 13 minutes now and I don't know where we are going with it," Diamond said. "We lost Mugford in the second half and we've got a nine playing at 10 so that confused the issue a little bit."

The real confusion, though, is in Diamond's thinking. As a statement of intent, what he had to say was horrendous, ill-informed and dangerous.

Protocols

This, after all, was a director of rugby speaking - a man who should be showing more concern for the safety of his player and the HIA protocols.

Now, I know, what's coming next. I know what people will say. I know what went on in my own career and how ensuring people's safety didn't appear to be top of my priority list.

Diamond, no doubt, could point to the incident with Leo Cullen in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final. Or maybe he remembers my stamp on Mark Lewis which earned me a six-week-ban in 2006 and left the Cardiff player with a knee injury.

Or perhaps he'll think of the time when I grabbed Courtney Lawes by the neck, before he gave me the eyes and grabbed me back, and a fight appeared set to break out until Neil Best came along and offered a sensible bit of advice. "Quinny," Best said, "I wouldn't bother."

I didn't then.

But I'm bothered now.

I see concussions happening on a far-too-regular basis in all sports and it scares me. I'm removed from the game now. I work as a pundit which facilitates me to watch matches from the sideline, see the hits at close-quarters and hear the thuds, hear the groans.

"Was it that physical when we played?" I often ask other ex-players. "Yes," they reply.

Yet it doesn't seem that way when you are stuck in the middle of the action.

I think back to my first game of adult rugby for Clanwilliam, my local club. I'm 16 years of age, young, impressionable, waiting for advice. And it comes in a pre-match huddle. The main emphasis in the team talk was to hurt the opposition. "Take their f***ing heads off lads," a senior player says. "F***ing kill them."

Rugby was a physical game and this was the culture I grew up in. It shaped me. There were unwritten rules, particularly around rucking. "If they kill our ball, or lie on the wrong side, let's make sure they feel our studs," we often said. So game after game, guys stamped on each other's hips, legs, backs, knees.

But you never went near a guy's head.

Never.

That was another unwritten rule.

But once it wasn't adhered to. In a game for Shannon against Old Crescent, the side of my head was stamped on. Was it accidental? I suspect not. So for the rest of the afternoon retribution was my sole concern.

As it was periodically throughout my career. Targeting the little guys didn't appeal to me. David Humphreys, a guy who plenty of other back-rowers went after, was treated gently.

But if anyone tried to have a go at ROG or Stringer, or one of my team-mates, I was on the case. Paul Volley, a former Wasps and Castres player, had a right pop off ROG once, clearly trying to intimidate him. "Why don't you take me on you f**ker?" I said to him, the caveman in me deciding it was fair game to have a pop back.

That was just how it was back then. That was what you signed up for. To this day there are studmarks all over my body, a reminder of how tough the game was, and if I'm being brutally honest, a reminder of how often I deliberately got myself in offside positions and attempted to slow, or kill, the ball.

My point is, I was no angel.

Yet my bigger point is this.

What was acceptable back in the 1990s or the noughties cannot be acceptable now. The game has changed - and for the better.

As I look back now, the Lewis incident is a source of regret, when out of frustration, I 'let him have the studs'. He got them on his calf but as he fell, he twisted his knee, suffering an injury in the process. There and then I was filled with regret. A player, because of my actions, ended up hurt. To this day, that's an emotional scar that has been slow to heal.

The physical ones have cured themselves, though. I have had loads of stitches, red marks, black eyes. And I'm not alone. Another memory, from an Ireland 'A' match in 1999/2000 against France. Jeremy Davidson has blood pouring out of his back. "How the f**k did that happen?" I ask. "I wanted to find out who did it, wanted to 'take his f***ing head off,' as I was advised on my senior debut. Now, five years after retiring, I want people like Diamond to use their heads.

I want them to step back a little and think of stories like Benjamin Robinson's, a young kid from Ulster, who died after suffering three separate head knocks in a schoolboy game in 2011.

He was 14.

I've spoken to his father about what happened and how his death could so easily have been prevented and often I think of where his son could be now, heading for university, possibly getting his first job.

Which is why there should be an onus on coaches at all levels in all sports to adhere to HIA protocols. They may not eliminate concussions but they can help protect the welfare of the player.

And that's why Diamond's comments annoyed me so much.

He lost a match.

But Peter Robinson lost a son.

And there's a big difference between the two.

Irish Independent

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