Anger as Saints escape censure over North incident
Rugby's authorities were roundly condemned last night for brushing aside player welfare concerns after a joint Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby investigation applied no sanction to Northampton Saints for their handling of George North's head injury.
The concussion review panel ruled that North should not have returned to play after a mid-air collision with Adam Thompstone in a match against Leicester on December 3.
Television pictures showed that North, who has a long history of suffering concussions, appeared to lose consciousness. The report concluded that: "not only from the video evidence but also George North's history and risk stratification, he should not have returned to the field of play".
However, the panel fell short of recommending that the club or any individuals be punished as it did not "consider that the medical team (or the club) failed to complete the HIA (head injury assessment) protocol nor intentionally ignored the player's best interests."
Instead the 17-page report, compiled by a three-man panel of Nigel Melville, the RFU's director of professional rugby, Phil Winstanley, rugby director at Premiership Rugby, and independent chairman Dr Julian Morris, made a list of nine recommendations.
Those included medical teams reviewing the television footage before commencing the HIA, which should also be completed in its entirety off field.
However, a number of organisations, including the Rugby Players' Association, expressed dissatisfaction that no-one was held to account for endangering North's health.
"That George was permitted to return to the field of play in the circumstances was a significant failing," an RPA statement read.
"While we feel that sanctions would have sent a clear message about the gravity of concussion mismanagement, we welcome the recommendations outlined in the report. These must be adopted and all concussion processes be kept under constant review so that everything is done in terms of training, resource and protocol to ensure this does not happen again."
More strident criticism came from Peter McCabe, the chief executive of Headway, the brain injury charity, who believes mixed messages are being sent out.
McCabe said: "The report states 'the group does not consider that the medical team (or the club) failed to complete the HIA protocol nor intentionally ignored the player's best interests'. If this is the case then serious questions have to be asked regarding the protocols: are they fit for purpose and are they being properly enforced?
"This incident sends out a confusing message around the issue of concussion, particularly for children who follow the example of famous players and their favourite clubs."
The oft-repeated claim from rugby's authorities that "player welfare is our No 1 concern" has yet again been exposed the moment that it came for decisive action to be taken.
It will be of small comfort to Northampton that also escaped punishment for fielding a weakened team in their 60-13 Champions Cup defeat to Leinster at the weekend with European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) issuing a pointed reminder that clubs need to exercise "squad rotation in good faith".
Under pressure Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder has indicated that North, who suffered four head blows in five months between November 2014 and March 2015, is in line to return in the Premiership match against Sale Sharks tonight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)