Comment - Rugby needs to respond with horror, not acceptance – we are still in denial over head injuries
The Rugby Football Union is not sure why a new “simple” 20-minute exercise regime cuts down on the number of concussions and since Sunday’s publication of this “benchmark study”, there has been plenty of scepticism in sports medicine rooms whether it can, or does, at all.
But you cannot blame England Rugby for declaring the “Activate Injury Prevention Exercise” to be a key element of its “Safe Rugby” programme. Because nothing else appears to be working.
World Rugby assures us that concussion awareness and management has never been better, but the blows to their claims just keep on coming. The Morgan Parra furore at the weekend was the latest head case in point. Ben Whitehouse, the Welsh referee, saw the Clermont scrum-half fall to the ground. He blew his whistle and advised the other players: “Hold on, lads, he’s been knocked unconscious”.
The rugby laws state if there is even a suspicion of a player being unconscious he should not return to play. A few minutes later though, there was Parra, jogging back on to the pitch.
Yet the most worrying aspect of all this was the spate of negative headlines directed at the inexperienced official’s other mistakes during the Champions Cup clash with Northampton. A try that never was, dodgy sin-binnings, a foot in touch on the way to a score: the usual stuff.
The real possibility of a brain trauma was lumped in with these other bad calls. It took just two days for the review judgment to come through, with two doctors agreeing Parra had not lost consciousness. That judgment did not provoke widespread fury.
But, then, a player missing with a head injury is now treated by many fans, journalists and – dare we say it – coaches and officials, with the same reaction that greets a pulled hamstring. Yet do the majority of us know what that player might be going through as he makes his recovery? If we did, maybe the biggest problem in rugby union would be granted its warranted billing.
Brad Thyer’s story may help in this regard. In January, the Cardiff Blues prop suffered a mini-stroke. The 24-year-old is back playing now and “from stroke victim to top-class loosehead” is clearly an arresting tale.
But the part which stands out is that for a day, Thyer believed the effects of an arterial clot were “merely” a case of concussion. “I should have realised there was something wrong when I drove home the wrong way after the game,” Thyer said. “The next morning, I collapsed into the fridge. Then there was projectile vomiting. I thought it was just concussion as it was nothing I hadn’t experienced before.
“I was seeing lights, symptoms that you have with concussion. It was just more amplified, I suppose. I was away with the fairies. I didn’t want to go to hospital, but my girlfriend was crying.”
“Just” concussion. A young man cannot stand up, is acting like the girl from The Exorcist, and, he puts it down to the same condition he and his mates had “experienced before”.
It turned out that the impact Thyer took just above the neck had caused a narrowing in the artery, but that is not the point I am making, and whether he should have been given the green light to resume his career is another debate.
Players are suffering the frightening effects of brain injuries and carrying on regardless and we are shrugging our shoulders. The danger is we are becoming inured while our unconfined horror should be the driving force in eradicating this scourge.