‘Rugby players are ‘cheating’ concussion protocols’

Rory Lamont. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Rory Lamont. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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FORMER Scotland internationalist Rory Lamont has lifted the lid on rugby players “cheating” concussion protocols and insisted many well-known figures are knowingly taking the field with head injuries.

• Click here for David Ferguson’s full interview with Rory Lamont

The 30-year-old retired last month after a succession of injuries, undergoing 16 operations and suffering “at least six or seven clean knock-outs” in games, and many more what he terms “minor concussions”.

After watching Australia flanker George Smith return to the field when so concussed he could not walk unaided during the recent British and Irish Lions Test series, due to an IRB trial of a controversial five-minute concussion test, Lamont believes that rugby has lost the ability to deal effectively with head injuries.

“I don’t know what research the IRB used for this trial but it is seriously flawed,” he said.

“Everyone saw George wobbling his way off the field, clearly concussed, and then come back on. I have suffered clean knockouts, real sleeping-on-the-floor episodes in a game, so I know the protocols inside out, the symptoms and recovery periods, and there is no way a player should be allowed to stay on the pitch after a head knock. It’s insanity. People might get annoyed with me saying this, but we are seeing reckless disregard for players’ welfare right now.”

The IRB recently lost a well-respected figure in Dr John O’Driscoll, the uncle of Brian O’Driscoll, in protest at the concussion trial. When Lamont started pro rugby concussion brought a mandatory three-week lay-off, but that was argued, largely by coaches, to be over-prescriptive in cases of minor concussion. Coaches flouted it in any case by pretending concussion had not occurred.

So a new protocol was introduced whereby a player is tested on successive days after suffering concussion and if he passes the tests he can return to play inside a week. Players regularly pass the tests. In many cases that is because they cheat,” revealed Lamont. “Players all talk about it. A test is done at the start of the season as a baseline test, and players who suffer from concussion have to return to that level to be passed fit to play.

“But some players will deliberately do stuff in the baseline test so that their results are low, making it easier to pass after concussion. And I’ve seen players carrying concussion into games. They’d come off a fairly straightforward tackle, but be sitting on the ground, starting into space for a few seconds.

“It’s a bit like your body shutting down and re-booting. I’ve experienced that. I didn’t hide it, but you are often ostracised by coaches who assume you are being dishonest or shirking by saying you can’t train or play, so with that pressure boys do play when they have head trauma.”

As reported previously in The Scotsman and sister paper Scotland on Sunday, US experts began investigating in 2008 potential links between depression and suicide in former American Footballers who suffered from concussion, through the ‘Boston Brain Bank’ – the Centre for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University – and Lamont has studied the research.

“They are further ahead of pro rugby and are beginning to see the effects, and it doesn’t look good. I know that with the concussion I’ve had, for example, there is a high risk of me developing neurological issues associated with the early stages of ‘Parkinson’s Disease’. But what’s done is done. All I can do now is look after my body as best I can.”

The SRU’s Dr James Robson, one of world rugby’s leading medics, has been campaigning for change for many years, but met with some resistance in other unions.

Dominic McKay, the SRU Director of Commercial Operations, Communications and Public Affairs, stated: “Safety is of paramount importance in rugby at all levels and we have been very active in pushing for change in this area.

“Dr Robson has been working with parties inside and outside of rugby, and once the current trial concludes we will be looking at the data and continuing to press hard for change to concussion protocols.”

Lamont added: “I’d like a return to a minimum three weeks out after concussion, because that would take away the pressure from coaches and medics to try to get a player back too early.

“But, for me, the route to change lies with the players. The message is pretty clear: if you take the pitch with concussion you will not perform to the levels you can, will let team-mates down, and will run the risk of causing yourself serious long-term damage.

“Once you start losing your mind there’s no coming back from it. You can be an alcoholic and have cirrhosis of the liver, and get a new liver and come off the booze, but there’s no coming back from brain damage.”