Sunday 13 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: High-tackle laws must be enforced to reduce risk of concussion

 

Dominic Ryan prevents George North from scoring a try last season but, despite suffering a head injury, told medics that he was just winded. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Dominic Ryan prevents George North from scoring a try last season but, despite suffering a head injury, told medics that he was just winded. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

"World Rugby has further strengthened its commitment to injury prevention by announcing details of a zero-tolerance approach to reckless and accidental head contact in the sport.

"In a change to law, World Rugby has redefined illegal (high) tackle categories and increased sanctions to deter high tackles via a law application guideline. This will apply at all levels of the game from January 3, 2017, introducing minimum on-field sanctions for reckless and accidental contact with the head, effectively lowering the acceptable height of the tackle.

"A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if, in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway." - World Rugby, December, 2016

Eighteen months after World Rugby announced their latest crackdown on high tackles, a stricken Remy Grosso was flat on his back on the Eden Park sod, the France winger having just sustained a double facial fracture in a sickening collision with two All Blacks.

Grosso did little wrong, he picked the ball from the base of the ruck and carried at the New Zealand defensive line, trying to inject a bit of speed into the French attack as they sought to narrow a 25-11 deficit with just over 20 minutes on the clock.

The Clermont player ducked slightly and was caught on the chin by the forearm of openside Sam Cane before 130kg replacement prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi came into the tackle fractionally later, leading with his shoulder and head, catching Grosso on the other side of his face and connecting head-on-head with his team-mate Cane.

It was a horrible clash - the collective groan from the Auckland crowd on seeing the replay said it all - but one that was only punished with a penalty against Cane.

After World Rugby brought in their new stance on head contact at the start of 2017, the effect was instantaneous and you could see the directive was to the forefront of referees' minds.

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Fast-forward 18 months, though, to last June and what I would consider reckless play from one player is only deemed worthy of a penalty, and reckless play by another ultimately goes unpunished. What kind of message does that send?

World Rugby later issued Tu'ungafasi with a warning, claiming the hit was just below a red-card offence, but that was of little consolation to Grosso, who was facing a spell on the sidelines.

When you consider the tone of the directive on high tackles, I think Cane should have been shown a yellow and Tu'ungafasi a red, and it is high-profile incidents such as these that start to cloud opinions on what should be a straightforward issue.

Blamed

The Australian reaction to Israel Folau being penalised for taking Peter O'Mahony out in the air in the third Test over the summer didn't help either.

Many of their commentators and journalists blamed CJ Stander's lift, yet it was Folau who brought the flanker down on his back and neck.

I played the game on the edge and got my share of yellow cards, but head injuries are too serious to argue over.

All it takes are a couple of contentious, high-profile decisions and players will start to second-guess what constitutes an automatic trip to the sin-bin.

I welcomed the directive at the start of 2017. It was desperately needed and I felt it would bring clarity around the punishment for high tackles and would help ease the concern around concussion.

The point is, it's all well and good announcing new protocols around head injuries - one of the biggest issues facing the game at all levels - but they need to be enforced consistently if rugby is really going to make progress in this regard.

I understand that rugby referees have an extremely difficult job. A game that requires such interpretation is bound to throw up discrepancies. Adjudication around high tackles, however, is easier to make black and white.

Having said all that, we need to remember that rugby has come a long way in a short space of time with regards to its treatment of head injuries.

I'm not yet retired eight years and I am from the 'magic sponge and bottle of water over the head' era.

The HIA assessment and return-to-play protocols may have their critics, but I believe they have helped the game, while having independent doctors monitor matches, particularly big internationals, can only be positive.

Rugby is obviously a very physical game and consequently there is an expectancy of toughness by team-mates and an ability to play through pain at times.

Players are naturally going to be selfish when it comes to staying on the field, even when they possibly shouldn't.

In such a fickle industry, where your career can quickly derail with an extended run on the sidelines, players often need to be told to leave the field.

Club medics also should know that many players are willing to lie about a head injury if they think it will allow them to stay on the field. This is not a rugby-specific problem either - plenty of jockeys have admitted doing the same, for instance.

Dominic Ryan admitted as much when he announced his retirement last week, at 28.

Twelve months ago he told two Leicester medics and referee JP Doyle he was merely winded after his head bounced off George North's elbow when denying the huge winger a try in a Premiership game against Northampton.

If there is any doubt around a head injury, the player needs to be assessed off the field. It's that simple.

It's devastating for Ryan to have to call time on his career knowing he hasn't managed to fulfil his great potential.

At the same time, though, the awareness around head injuries has, I'm sure, played a big part in his decision. And while the culture of player attitudes towards concussion is not perfect, the fact that Ryan is retiring now to protect his long-term health is definitely a positive step and an important message for his fellow professionals.

I had plenty of serious injuries during my career, but thankfully I never suffered a concussion, while none of my peers have ever openly complained to me about any ill-effects, such as headaches, since they have retired.

The word 'concussion' is thrown about so much these days it is starting to lose its impact - we have to remember this is a brain injury and it must be treated accordingly. Any suggestion that can reduce the level of risk must surely be at least entertained by the powers that be.

England's second-tier clubs will be trialling a new high-tackle initiative - increasing the no-go zone from above the shoulder to above the armpit line - in a cup competition this season and experiments such as this, which are clearly driven by player welfare, should be welcomed.

I also like the suggestion of former Ulster coach Allen Clarke to adapt the 40-20 kick rule from rugby league to our own code - you would get the lineout throw if a kick from your own half bounces into touch in your opponents' 22 - which would force the defending team to commit more players to the back-field.

Taking numbers out of the defensive line would open up more space, encourage more creativity and potentially reduce the number of collisions, so there is a lot to like about the idea.

I would also like to see a bit more focus being put on the hindmost foot offside line. Considering the defensive numbers involved and the fact that the offside line is imaginary, it is very difficult for referees to police it properly on their own.

It's rare to actually see all of a defensive line onside these days. Teams are closing down the attacking side so quickly that the ball-carrier often can't even use his feet to avoid heavy contact.

Moving the defensive line at least a yard behind the ruck would create a bit more space and could also reduce the number of collisions.

The number of substitutions could also be revisited; being able to bring on more than half a team who are fully charged and desperate to make an impression is a couple of changes too many.

I would also like to see more protection for guys in vulnerable positions at the ruck. They are attempting to poach or protect the ball, and are suffering far too many injuries due to swinging arms and opponents charging in for the cleanout.

Rugby is a wonderful game and while it has its issues, no sport is perfect.

We need to have these conversations and not forget that player welfare must always be the priority.

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