Rob Kearney: Concussion is the one injury guys take far more seriously
There have been times during the more brutal Test matches in recent times where the injury toll ratchets up and you can't help but wonder why are these men doing this?
Last Saturday, Rob Kearney watched Sean O'Brien limp from the fray, before his brother Dave was forced off by a high tackle from France's captain. Mike McCarthy received a head injury so severe he couldn't get off the ground and needed a stretcher, before Johnny Sexton joined him on the sidelines with what Joe Schmidt described as a "whiplash-style" injury.
The full-back himself has spent much of the season struggling with a hamstring, but three inadvertent collisions left him dazed. It was that kind of day.
All of this is played out against a backdrop of the concussion discussion that Kearney joined yesterday as he launched Laya Healthcare's 'HEAD ON' on concussion management programme' and spoke about his own experiences of brain injuries.
In yesterday's newspapers, his team-mate Hayden Triggs revealed his fears of concussion, while a deeply troubling video of former professional John Shaw suffering a blank during an interview about the head injuries went viral after being released by ex-Scotland international John Beattie and the BBC.
In the last year, two Ireland internationals have retired from rugby as a result of concussion, while another went with a neck injury. As all of this goes on, the players, whose salaries offer nothing like the life security offered in professional football, continue to put their bodies on the line.
"You do become immune to injuries. Muscles, bones they all heal and that's why it's important to recognise that you can't put the brain or the head in the same category," Kearney said. "It does worry me but what's my alternative? Retire? This is my job, I'm living the dream. It's what we all love doing, so this is what we sign up for.
"It's not just another injury, no. It's the one injury that guys will take far more seriously.
"If you've a sore shoulder, a sore knee or a bad ankle you strap them up and out you go. You can't do the same with your head. In times past, players would have but I genuinely believe that that culture is changing.
"I am not playing this game so that I am going to retire and live the high life or a big lifestyle, I'm playing this game because it was my dream since I was five years old and it's what I love doing.
"Representing your country is the greatest feeling you can get and when I ultimately do retire it will be very difficult to get close to emulating that feeling. But, yeah, it is difficult."
Brian O'Driscoll often described his first generation of professional players as 'guinea pigs' and, for all that Kearney and other current players stress that they get the best possible medical attention and advice, there is an acknowledgement that the science around head injuries is moving quickly.
Last week, a report commissioned by the RFU showed that the 'Graduated return to play protocols' need to be looked at again as they are unreliable, an example of the changing nature of the issue.
"That is a worry," Kearney conceded. "OK, so I'm worried about it so I have to decide what my objective is in all of this. I want to make sure that when I retire I'm in the best mental health place that I can be.
"How? You need to educate yourself on it, if you do have a concussion you err on the side of caution and I've been lucky enough that my experiences haven't been too big and there hasn't been too many."
Kearney has suffered two concussions in his career, his last in 2009 although he failed a Head Injury Assessment in the 2014 game against Australia.
His recent injury problems have been limited to the more mundane, yet very annoying, hamstring problem that has plagued his season since he pulled out of the World Cup warm-up against England.
All the while, as he tries to shake off the niggly problem, he is coming under greater scrutiny than ever before about his performances. "I just haven't gotten a perfect run of games. I haven't played two full 80-minute games on the bounce since the World Cup and that is difficult to try and find a bit of rhythm in your game," he said. "Conditions aren't helping and then you come under a huge amount of pressure as well, the worst thing that I can do now is go out and try and force things, to try and prove I can still attack, that I can still show flair...
"I learnt that the hard way, many years ago after a bad game, not to say, 'Right, I'm going to come out and show these guys I can still do this and that'. I just need to stay patient, train hard and know that those opportunities will come to show that I still have an attacking game, whether people think it or not.
"Nobody likes being questioned, that's human nature. Nobody likes being told that you can't do something when you believe you can. It doesn't affect me enough to alter what happens me on a Saturday afternoon and I think that's important.
"People are different, everyone reacts differently and some guys completely avoid it and others think it's important to be aware of what's going on, what's being said ... so, it's tough to read and to take a bit of heat sometimes, but I'd like to think I'm long enough in the game that it won't affect me.
"Everyone goes through phases when they question themselves and it comes after games when you've lost and you've done things that you don't normally do, that you could have done better, of course you question yourself, but you don't question yourself enough to alter what you do on the rugby field.
"That has to be your moment to close ranks, block everything off and do what you're doing as best you can while staying patient. At full-back, sometimes things just don't go your way. I thought I'd a relatively good World Cup, obviously against Argentina not many of us played well.
"I haven't played a huge amount of games with the hamstring and some of the Leinster games haven't particularly gone my way and conditions do play a part."
Mention of the Argentina game prompts the thought that confidence might not be all that high as Ireland head to Twickenham.
"I don't think so," Kearney reflected. "The performance against Wales, when everyone was writing the lads off and not giving them a sniff, they played really well. We're getting into the opposition '22 too many times without coming away with points. If we get another three points at the weekend, then I think we would have held on. The same applies for the Welsh game. So, confidence isn't battered a huge amount, especially because they've all been close games."
Laya's bid to tackle concussion 'head on'
Rob Kearney yesterday launched Laya Healthcare's 'Head On' Concussion Management Programme. The programme, which is being launched in association with Leinster Rugby, is the largest concussion screening to be rolled out in Ireland and will deliver 1,350 baseline screenings to amateur rugby players aged over 16 years from Leinster clubs, free of charge.
A 20pc discount on the screening is also available to all other Irish rugby clubs. Laya Healthcare is investing €100,000 in the initiative, the first major public health programme as part of Laya Healthcare's Health & Wellness Partnership with Leinster Rugby. To date, more than eight million people worldwide have been screened using the technology behind Laya Healthcare's concussion management programme.