Sunday 22 September 2019

A year on from Anthony Foley's death and health screening of rugby coaches still not mandatory

Anthony Foley, who died suddenly a year ago. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Anthony Foley, who died suddenly a year ago. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A year on from the sudden death of Anthony Foley, health screening of coaches in the IRFU system is not mandatory, despite the stressful nature of the job.

"Health screening is not a requirement," an IRFU spokesman confirmed last week. "All staff are provided with health insurance."

Of the four provinces contacted by the Sunday Independent, none appear to have mandatory programmes either, which may be related to the fact that the IRFU ultimately is the employer.

Leinster have an arrangement with an external healthcare provider, and staff can be asked to attend "in line with their role within the organisation".

Connacht too "facilitate" their coaching and medical staff if they wish to be screened, while Ulster did not wish to comment. Munster, meanwhile, will soon make it standard practice in the organisation.

"Obviously it's been something that has been talked about a lot in the wake of Axel's death and an annual programme will soon be put in place," a Munster spokesperson said. "A consultant has already been identified to run it for us, for all our coaching staff, and while some people have already had their own checks done it will be part of company policy sooner rather than later."

The risks to coaches were highlighted in a review, published in spring of this year, of Sport Ireland Institute's Pursuit of Excellence Programme 2014-'16, the umbrella for coach development within the Institute.

All 16 coaches on the programme completed a full cardiac screen, blood profiling and a lifestyle audit as part of the screening process. In total, 53 health behaviour modifications were recommended arising from that exercise.

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According to Institute director Liam Harbison, however, corrective action is not automatic.

"It's quite significant," he says of the figures. "The onus is then on the coach to actually make those behavioural modifications. I think the uptake then wasn't quite as extensive as it should have been. They (coaches) will still focus on the endgame, high performance coaching, getting to the [Olympic] Games and getting their athletes to the podium.

"I think there's an ethos among high performance coaches - in most sports at the top level - that they'll put their health on the back burner to do the job. And that would stretch further to performance directors, and it would go as far as CEOs. It's obviously a professional endeavour but there's a vocational element to it as well."

While the death of Anthony Foley had a huge impact on the rugby community, and beyond, he wasn't the only coach to have cardiac issues in recent years. Current Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes had a heart episode on the training field in 2013 when he was still with Leinster. One of the medics on hand considered him fortunate to have had the incident in that environment rather than on the team flight to a match in Italy a few hours later.

"Ah, there was only one moment that was scary and it passed pretty quickly," Gibbes says. "It didn't make me think (about anything important). It's an experience that shapes you, but losing to Stade Francais (Top 14 final, 2015) shaped me as well. You're just grateful for the people around you - that's all."

Meanwhile, Cian Healy contributed two first-half tries as Leinster scored a bonus-point win in Glasgow in their second European Champions Cup pool game. Johnny Sexton was responsible for 17 of Leinster's points in the 34-18 victory. Munster ground out a 14-7 win over Racing 92 in driving wind and rain at Thomond Park last night. Conor Murray and Andrew Conway scored the tries.

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