Sport Rugby

Monday 9 December 2019

Like a boxer, you get used to collisions – Fergus McFadden

Fergus McFadden escaped without concussion after taking a blow to the head in Leinster's Pro12 play-off against Ulster on Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Fergus McFadden escaped without concussion after taking a blow to the head in Leinster's Pro12 play-off against Ulster on Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

The big problem with head injuries in rugby? It's all in the mind, obviously. A matter of perception.

A week after the ugly scenes involving Florian Fritz in Toulouse, another glimpse of the sport's frightening ability to displace sense and reason in its irredeemably brave warriors brought the issue closer to home.

To the onlooker last Saturday night at the RDS, when a dazed and confused Fergus McFadden rose to his unsteady feet and attempted to scrag a tackler, as an old lady might attempt to retrieve a fallen bag of oranges, it seemed for all the world that he had been transported to another dimension.

That was the external perception. McFadden's own recall is, as he sincerely portrays it, something quite different altogether.

"I felt fine," he insists, after suffering the colloquial "bang to the head" which never, it seemed, arrived at the medical conjunction of concussion.


"Listen, the collisions are pretty big in the game these days. Concussion or no concussion, you get knocks to your shoulders, your neck, your head in every game. It's wear and tear and you kind of get used to it. If you guys went in and nearly took some of the knocks we do, you wouldn't be used to it.

"But it's like a boxer, you end up getting used to taking those collisions and I got a knock to the head. But thankfully it wasn't too bad and it hasn't been diagnosed as concussion."

And, even though his legs straddled the turf akin to a newly-born foal, did the danger apparent in attempting to repel 170kg of accelerating muscle not raise alarm bells?

Could he even recall those stuttering attempts to regather his composure?

"I do, yeah, I was just a bit rattled but I do remember them, yeah," he concedes. "I probably should have made a better effort at the tackle but yeah, I was fine. I just tried to get on with it and the medics then came on and took me off as a precaution, as I said."

That was his perception. Mercifully, the perception of the Leinster medical team – as was the case with Brian O'Driscoll and Sean Cronin – proved to be more decisive.

It is they who must delineate the fine line between a player's bravery and the medical reality; every day, when McFadden meets John Fogarty in the Leinster HQ, McFadden is reminded of this.

Fogarty, a former Leinster hooker, was forced to retire after a series of concussive blows impacted upon his sleep; it got to the stage where he couldn't sit in a bright room without having a migraine.

And yet, while McFadden is aware that the ravages of the modern game could mortgage his playing future – he has been concussed twice in his career already – it is not as if one can repel every impact.

"I'd end up handing in my notice if I thought about it too much I'd say," he replies laconically, when asked if he has fears for his future.

"You look at someone like John, who I played with in my first few years at Leinster, he probably had another three or four years left in his career and he had to retire. So yeah, there are scary cases but you can't think about it too much, you get on with it.

"I love rugby for the physicality and the collisions and this just comes part and parcel of it."

Asked about the increase of time being afforded by the IRB to test for potential concussions, McFadden seems unsure; and, of course, he should be.

The player's concern will always be to play on even if limbs or ears are dangling from their battered and bruised bodies; medics, too, have been placed in an invidious position by the IRB's chaotically narrow stringencies.

"I don't really know the science around it," he admits. "You can't be too careful. That's all I know.

"If that's the amount of time they need to go through all the protocols then great. Because genuinely I might be guilty a few times of playing on where you're injured and trying to get on with things.

"There are knock-on effects, scary knock-on effects down the line so you have got to be really careful."

Albeit then, he also adds with a worrying contradiction: "It would be a frustration if you were taken off for 10 minutes in a game and it was discovered that you weren't concussed. That's the only thing I'd say."

He can only trust his medical staff. "I do trust them. You have to trust them. I can only speak from my own scenario in Leinster. They tell me whether it's recovery or time off.

"For instance the knock at the weekend, if they are saying I can't train for so long, I'm just going to listen to that because they know best.

"You look at the likes of the Fritz case ... it's scary to see players like that in that kind of condition and they go back out and play.

"Your hope is that the medics take care of you and all fairness to Leinster and the Irish medics they don't take any chances in that area."

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