Game not getting concussion message through to players
Guidance must be more authoritative and convincing if rugby wants to rid itself of macho responses to a burning issue, writes Dean Ryan
IN all the hours of European rugby on the television screens so far this weekend have you see anything which might have looked like a concussive injury?
I bet you did, but whether it turned out to be concussion or not, I also bet that the player involved ran off as soon as he spotted the doctor approaching from the touchline. No matter that the legs are wobbly, the first instinct is to get away. Then, even if the doctor thought he needed longer than a brief on-field examination, it was odds-on that the player disagreed, only reluctantly departing the field. It's in the nature of the beast.
Professional rugby players, elite athletes, want to play on. They are, after all, getting paid for something they would enjoy doing for nothing and distrust anyone and anything that might deny them. It's part of their culture. More importantly, they are suspicious.
We're not talking about park players or even amateurs of good league standard. In their case the action of the Irish Rugby Football Union last week in warning all players of the dangers of concussion, while issuing coaches with a guide on how to spot it and what to do, is a step forward; a big step forward and much to be applauded.
However, it's well short of what is needed in the world of professional rugby.
Possibly the best way to explain where I'm coming from is to run through my story. Back in 1998, I was playing in what turned out to be a very successful season for Newcastle. We won the league, pipping Saracens by a point, although I couldn't play in the final game which confirmed the title because of sustaining three concussive injuries within 10 days.
The first was in Perpignan where, after the final whistle, I took a punch and came around in a changing room gripped by much hilarity; it was the way of the world then, when a 6ft 6inch forward was reduced to a Bambi-like stumble. The third knocked me out for eight minutes. Examination showed a large bruise on the brain.
The rule then was that concussion brought a mandatory three-week rest from the game, hence me missing that final league game at which the cup was presented, but with the summer coming and four months off, the assumption was that all would be well come the new season. In fact, the true damage and my ongoing epilepsy, wasn't revealed until about 18 months later after what must have been hundreds of partial seizures.
By then I had given up playing and was coaching at Bristol, but was still having between 20 and 30 seizures (petit mal) a month. How I got to that position obviously informs my present feelings on the issue and why, as a director of rugby with a duty of care for other young professional players, I'm angry at the lack of leadership I'm getting from the game.
We are where we are because of many things, not least our history and our culture. Rugby players choose to play a contact sport and the culture involves taking a bit of pain. It's not like boxing where damage is intended, but as players get bigger and faster so the hits get harder and while the humour associated with that game against Perpignan might have changed for the better, there is still the suspicion in the minds of many players that the mere assumption of concussion might be enough to take them out of the game unnecessarily.
Remember this current round of debate was brought about by Rory Lamont, the former Scotland back, who told a newspaper that players regularly cheated concussion protocols so as to play on. Well, my guess is that culture stems from the once-mandatory three-week ban which was often as irrelevant as it was relevant.
Often players recovered before the three weeks were up, leaving a residual belief in the game that valuable playing time was being wasted. As I say, it probably masked more than it revealed, leaving far too many players with a belief that they were quick healers. Or, as in my case, it was quite capable of giving comfort where treatment was needed.
These are attitudes that continue today which bring me to the crux of the issue in the professional game: player confidence. To rid ourselves of the effects of a poisoned history and
the macho culture which still pervades the issue of concussion, players have to believe in the guidance they are getting and this is where my frustrations lie. The game, the professional game, isn't getting it. I've been to recent conferences on the subject hoping to learn the way forward, but instead came away with yet more conflicting views and arguments.
What the professional game needs is to be told what it must do. It must be authoritative and convincing. And until it gets that guidance there is little chance of persuading players that there is a way forward; that they can stop running away from the doctor, that they can stop hiding behind a wall of lies which prevents appropriate and sensitive treatment.