Rugby facing a major concussion headache
In attempting to reduce head injuries, World Rugby has found itself embroiled in an argument about whether the game is going soft.
George North lay prone on the ground, face-down and unresponsive. A sickening sight for any player, never mind one that has suffered a long history of concussions that ultimately led to a five-month lay-off from rugby in 2015.
Despite the fact that World Rugby's head injury assessment protocol clearly and definitively states that players suspected of losing consciousness must be immediately and permanently removed from the field, North returned to action minutes later and completed the game.
The fallout from the incident has raged on for well over a fortnight. Northampton Saints doctors were unaware that North had been knocked out, with their replay systems apparently not showing them the extended period of time that he spent motionless on the floor. North has now, belatedly, been stood down from all rugby activity and an investigation into the role of the club doctors found that they responded "with player welfare at the centre of their actions" and "had not intentionally ignored the player's best interests."
The investigation discovered that North had been put in considerable danger by allowing him back onto the field. For a player with a dark history of brain trauma, such action could have had an irreversible effect not just on his rugby-playing career but on his life. By absolving the club from responsibility for this, rugby has set a dangerous precedent where 'winning at all costs' takes priority over player safety.
The fallout from the George North incident is made more fascinating by the stark contrast it holds to World Rugby's recent announcement about new measures to deal with head contact in rugby. The new, harsher regulations will target any - even accidental - contact with the head in the tackle in order to ensure that "the head is a no-go area" in rugby.
At the same time, referees were instructed to crack down on dangerous play that could lead to head injuries. The statement was clear: World Rugby wanted to make concussions a thing of the past and they were making player safety the number one priority.
The decision was no doubt influenced by an open letter in March, from doctors urging schools to ban tackling in rugby for young children. The considerable dangers of concussions, especially for children, have become more evident in recent years and the decision of Alistair Hargreaves to retire from rugby in October following five concussions in two seasons has paved the way for other players to do the same.
Despite the outcry in favour of reducing head injuries, World Rugby's announced new measures were not received positively by all and some of the on-field decision making has come in for serious scrutiny. England's Autumn International game against Argentina is a good example of this.
The game took place before the new tackle laws were announced but after referees were instructed to crack down on foul play. Elliot Daly was given a straight red card for tackling an opponent in the air whilst his opposite number Juan Pablo Estelles stayed on the field after a similar challenge.
The difference, of course, was the outcome. Daly's clumsy challenge caused Leonardo Senatore to land awkwardly on his neck and the Argentinian number eight would be forced to leave the field injured but in Estelles' case, Jonny May was able to land feet first and avoided injury. Given that both were accidental yet reckless in nature, should so much stock be placed in the outcome rather than the process?
It is a question that Exeter coach Rob Baxter posed at the weekend when he admitted that he felt uncomfortable with the red card that opposition winger Nans Ducuing received in the Champions Cup tie. The Bordeaux flyer had upended Exeter winger Olly Woodburn who landed on his neck and was forced to receive extensive treatment.
Despite the sending off working out in his favour, Baxter had his concerns. He said: "Don't get me wrong, the referee made the correct decision and he interpreted the directives and laws exactly right, but should it be a red card when two players are both committed to the ball?"Should it be a red card when two players are both committed to the ball?”
The controversy over outcome-driven decisions exploded a week after Kurtley Beale was sin-binned in his Wasps debut for a high-tackle. Although Beale intially attempted to tackle Niyi Adeolukun legally, his opponent ducked down into the challenge giving it the impression of a more dangerous collision. Perhaps wary of the new rules to protect the head, the referee deemed the challenge worthy of a yellow card.
Yellow card? Whaaaaaaat?— Martin Bayfield (@MartinBayfield) December 11, 2016
There was also furore during the Saracens-Sale fixture which saw three Sale players dispatched to the sin bin. Sale's Director of Rugby Steve Diamond was exasperated after the game, claiming the game was moving towards touch rugby. Watching from home, England prop Joe Marler seemed to share a similar view.
The game isn't what it used to be - blazer bells 🔔 need to stop changing the rules, it's becoming ridiculous shite! 💩— Joe Marler (@JoeMarler) December 18, 2016
During Leicester's nail-biting victory over Munster, Simon Zebo received a yellow card for a marginally late tackle as Adam Thompstone broke down the wing. The decision didn't go down well with a couple of notable former players as Ronan O'Gara retweeted his former adversary.
That's a joke... 😳 yellow card? 🙄— Matt Giteau (@giteau_rugby) December 17, 2016
Rugby seems to find itself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there is considerable support for far stronger concussion laws in order to prioritise the safety of players who find themselves in situations like George North. On the other, however, we see the frustration of players and ex-players alike who find the goalposts of what is and what isn't legal on the field changing week on week. Ugo Monye perhaps reflected this sentiment better than anyone:
Need to get the balance right of player welfare and allowing the game to keep a physical edge which we all enjoy (currently not the case)— ugo monye (@ugomonye) December 18, 2016
World Rugby's new directive is designed specifically to avoid cases like George North's, but in implementing these new rules referees have encouraged a wider debate about the game going soft. Whilst punitive action has shot up on the field, often for minor malaises, with six red and 29 yellow cards handed out over the weekend, Northampton have avoided any sanctions for their woeful mistreatment of a player who had his career or even life at risk as he played through a concussion.
Correcting the disconnect between the game's decision makers and it's players is crucial if rugby is going to remain an entertaining on-field product that prioritises the safety of its participants. This is bound to be a challenge worth following for the sport in the coming months.