English rugby looks to tackle concussion fears

ENGLAND’S rugby authorities yesterday announced new measures to address the issue of concussion in the sport, with the RFU’s Professional Game Board introducing a compulsory education programme to help players and coaches reduce the instances of the condition and to react in the right way when it does occur.

Australia flanker George Smith is helped from the field after suffering concussion in a clash of heads. Picture: Getty
Australia flanker George Smith is helped from the field after suffering concussion in a clash of heads. Picture: Getty

The drive towards a safer game built up a head of steam after Rory Lamont outlined his concerns about concussion in The Scotsman last summer, and the PGB move follows a series of appeals for a mandatory educational system from Peter Robinson, whose son Ben died after becoming concussed in a Northern Irish schools match.

The PGB, made up of representatives of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Premiership Rugby (PRL) and the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA), has made it mandatory for the new online module to be completed before the start of next season.

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The course will apply to the Aviva Premiership, Championship and Regional Academies, while further resources will be made available to referees and medical staff.

The PGB has also given its backing to several recommendations made by their Medical Advisory Group. These include the mandatory viewing of footage of how an injury occurred before a decision can be taken over whether a player is fit to resume action. This would be in addition to the International Rugby Board’s current Pitchside Concussion Assessment – a five-minute test on players who suffer head injuries.

Another recommendation was for a review panel to investigate in situations where a player has returned to the field but is later revealed to have been concussed. There is also a commitment from all sides to support independent research into the long-term consequences of multiple concussions on recently-retired players.

Research in the United States has found signs of early onset dementia in former NFL players, while the work of Dr Willie Stewart at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital has linked rugby with dementia. There was also the notorious example of Australia flanker George Smith, who came back onto the field in last summer’s third Test against the British & Irish Lions despite being visibly concussed after a clash with Richard Hibbard. RFU chief medical officer Simon Kemp said: “Concussion is acknowledged to be one of the most challenging sports injuries to diagnose, assess and rehabilitate but we continue to make significant progress in this area.

“The education initiative is designed to broaden understanding beyond healthcare practitioners and facilitate the further cultural change needed across the game for good concussion management. We are very aware that the way concussion is managed at the professional level drives how it’s managed at other levels of the game.”

David Barnes, rugby director of the RPA, added: “The RPA remains committed to working with all parties to ensure that injury risks to our members playing the game are monitored and effective strategies are developed to reduce risks to their welfare.”

Scottish Rugby has been at the forefront of tackling the issue of concussion through its “Are you Ready to Play Rugby?” scheme, which this season has involved the distribution of 9,500 snap-card factsheets to clubs, schools and referees.

Although it is mandatory for anyone coaching, teaching or refereeing rugby in Scotland to pass a RugbyReady course each year, the preponderance of volunteers within the game makes it very difficult to ensure 100 per cent participation.

A Scottish Rugby spokesman insisted that compliance levels are growing every year, and added: “We have been active for the last four years to improve the recognition of concussion at grassroots level and to encourage clubs to ensure anyone suspected of concussion sits out for the necessary time period.

“In addition, we are working with the Scottish Government and the SCOT group [Scottish Committee of Orthopaedic and Trauma surgeons] to continue to look at ways in which the game can be safer.”