The Obligatory Head Injury in Rugby post

The Rugby World Cup is here and talk again turns to head injuries and how the game can protect players.

The most senior medical figure in World Rugby has said today that the sports rules may have to change to reduce the chance of concussions – he suggests that particular focus needs to be made to the tackle laws.

Reported cases of concussion in rugby have doubled in the last five years and it’s been claimed that on average one player in every six nations match would suffer a brain injury.

World Rugby Chief Medical Officer, Martin Raftery, will tell the BBC’s Panorama show tonight about his main concerns and confirmed that they need to make the game safer, and that concussions are more likely to occur in the tackle, he also calls for the sport to look at ways in which the number of concussions can be reduced.

Ian Abel, Michael Lewin Solicitors, Sports Law expert commented “One of the reasons for the reported rise in concussion in Rugby is that the sport has got much better in recognising the condition in recent years; in addition, the teams are increasingly concerned about protecting the welfare of their players.”

He continued, “We know that the world governing body for rugby is looking at hundreds of videos to see exactly what is causing head injuries, so that they can devise specific tactics for reducing the number.”

Concussion occurs when a player is knocked out, this alone can be very obvious on the field of play and can potentially be life threatening.

Ian points out other areas that need to be looked at “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is a build-up of knocks from repeated blows on the field which accumulate over a playing career and could lead to the early onset of dementia. This is the real problem for the sport as individual knocks are difficult to spot in real-time and in themselves not enough to warrant bringing a player off the field for attention.”

Another issue is that players are becoming larger and heavier and they are being training (certainly in the professional game) to move forward and hit each other. These are not classed as ‘tackles’ in the game but as ‘hits’.

There has been a lot of work put into this problem in the States for the National Football League (NFL) and American Football, and in fact last year the NFL agreed a huge pay-out in compensation to former players, but this was done without them admitting an correlation between ‘hits’ and brain damage. In fact the professional body in the States has done a lot to change the game to make it safer, making over 40 changes to the game of American Football in recent years to make it safer for players and now concussion in the NFL is on the decline. This had led many to agree with Mr Raftery that the rules for Rugby must also change.

It’s clear that the rate of concussion in Rugby is unacceptable, changes do need to be made, especially around the rules for tackles and potentially looking at how high players can tackle, with potential penalties if players get the tackle wrong. If it turns out that the main problem is these smaller hits then rule changes are much more difficult, as these happen when your head hits the ground, in scrums, when you hit someone in a tackle etc., so any changes will need to look at reducing the chances of these clashes especially if the opponent is defenceless or alter the tackle law.

Rugby fans have an appetite for the sort of aggression on the field that leads to these injuries so there is likely to be barriers to making the game safer for players if the fans believe that it will make the game less exciting!

Again in the US, parents of younger player have to go to concession awareness classes and sign a form that accepts responsibility that their child might be concussed by repetitive knocking.

A statement from World Rugby says “Player welfare is World Rugby’s Number One priority at all levels of the game, over the last 12 months we’ve educated over 100,000 children, coaches, players, referees and medics to recognise concussion symptoms and remove any player suspected of having a concussion. Peer reviewed research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that prior to the introduction of our protocols in 2012, 56% of players that were accessed on the field and remained on the field were later determined to be concussed, that figure is now less than 12%, with the 10 minute off-field assessment period and our commitment continues that strong progress.

We are not complacent, and the Rugby World Cup 2015 features the most advanced player welfare standards programme for a Rugby event featuring mandatory concussion education baseline testing, the use of technology to identify and review injuries and independent neurologist consultation for return to play decisions.”

Hopefully World Rugby and the teams can all pull together to ensure that the necessary changes are made and that players stay safe.

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