The news that concussion injuries in rugby have risen to record levels this year reflects a sad trend in the modern game. It is now estimated that a quarter of all match day injuries are related to concussion. At last year’s Six Nations grand slam decider, England captain Dylan Hartley said that he has no recollection of being presented the trophy. Repeated head injuries to Welsh wing George North have lead to many predictions that he may have to retire early. This was surely not the idea when rugby became a professional sport, and it is a problem that urgently needs addressing as the game evolves to become potentially more dangerous for the participants.
The fact of the matter is, rugby has evolved beyond the original contact sport that was played during the twentieth-century. ‘Collision sport’ would be a more apt description of what is actually going on. Since the switch to professionalism in the mid-1990s, players have grown in stature, size and strength, making the game faster and more intense. While this may make the attacking side of the game more exciting, on the defensive side the game has become much more dangerous at the highest levels. Couple this with the long club seasons, multiple European competitions and international tours and tests: the physical strain on these players becomes apparent.
So what can ultimately be done about it? The new rules surrounding high tackles have been a good start (although any fans of teams that have had players sent off may disagree), referees now penalise these infringements much more harshly. While these advancements may lead to decisions that many may find unfair, the ultimate goal is to change the approach to tackling, in order to make it safer for everyone involved. But outside of a fresh look at the rules, there are a few other changes which would aid the physical health of players, not just in terms of concussion but for all injuries in general. I highlighted the problem that the fixture list has become more and more congested, and the tendency for players to be rushed back from injury is one that is short- sighted and causes more problems. Naturally, I don’t for one minute believe that clubs are intentionally sending players out to get injured, but the pressure on players and clubs to achieve may lead to a greater urge to get a certain player back into the team quicker than their body can recover. So the best course of action is to evolve their procedures when it comes to injuries, especially head related ones, and become better at identifying these problems and removing players from the field if they are noticeably struggling. On the player side of things, they need to feel comfortable telling their clubs about any problems they may be experiencing, which will help physios and doctors treat problems faster, resulting in healthier players. Players also should be better informed as to what impact head injuries can have on their careers. Jonny Sexton, no stranger to the world of head injuries, went on record saying that he had only really had two major concussions in his career. Incidentally during his time at Racing 92, the team doctors warned him that repeated concussion injuries would lead to an early retirement. Minimising a problem in the same fashion as Sexton needs to be avoided at all costs. Finally, while it is important to edit the game to avoid such drastic head injuries, funding should also go towards those who have been through the system and have come out the other side. Concussion is a grave injury and leaves those affected open to further brain problems in later life.
At the end of the day, it is sport. It is supposed to be fun, it is supposed to cultivate the principles of teamwork and mutual respect, and it is supposed to be good for you. Repeated head trauma should not be part of that equation.