Rugby’s Concussion Problem Comes To The Fore

Issues of head injuries in rugby are as prominent as anywhere


Early in 2016, the NFL officially acknowledged the link between football and brain damage. With an average Nose Tackle weighing in at 322 lbs before equipment, the force that goes into collision on a football field is enormous - head collisions are common and, resultantly, so is concussion. After a long and troubled history with the issue, the NFL acknowledged that the game caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - a brain disease found in dozens of retired players - far more likely.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed posthumously, can cause disorientation, headaches, and dizziness, as well as some more serious complications like memory loss, social instability, and poor judgment. Eventually, dementia, deafness, impeded speech, and even suicidal ideation can occur. And CTE isn’t limited to the NFL; there’s the expectation it will be found in athletes from sports like ice hockey, wrestling, and rugby.

Oddly enough, because rugby requires no helmet to play and tackles are legally kept below the shoulders, concussion is only a relatively recent topic of concern. Following the revelations in the NFL, though, awareness of concussion in rugby has spiked, and former players are speaking out for both better prevention and more thorough treatment of what is such a dangerous condition.

Instances of players taking action regarding concussions are on the rise - shortly before writing this the Ireland international prop Nathan White’s team, Connacht, announced that the 35-year-old would be retiring from the game thanks to one such injury late on in his career. Similarly, Canadian forward Jamie Cudmore has accused doctors of mismanaging a head injury he sustained, allowing him to play on in two games despite failing a Head Injury Assessment in both instances. And Simon Halliday, chief executive of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), has responded to the issue by warning that rugby is ‘sleepwalking into a problem.’

The body has taken steps to combat the problem, setting up a ‘player welfare advisory group to ensure clubs follow the concussion protocols laid down by World Rugby and [punishing] any who do not,’ according to the Guardian. ‘We do not want to end up in the same place as the NFL [American football],’ Halliday said. ‘An assessment is being done on players from my era but then it was more about punches and kicks than impacts. We take concussion very seriously and are desperate for leadership, direction and guidance from World Rugby on the disciplinary process: good statements are being made but I would like to see some action.’

A study into the 611 Head Impact Assessments made in 1,516 professional matches between 2013 and 2015 has shed some light on the types of impacts that cause concussion. A ‘zero tolerance’ policy on head injury in rugby has been agreed by senior figures in World Rugby, which in practice means that steps will be taken to limit the types of collision most likely to cause harm. A host of proposals are set to be discussed in the near future, and a forthcoming brain study will investigate the long-term effect of rugby union and concussion on player health, both physically and cognitively.

The Guardian’s Sean Ingle referenced Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s prophecy that American football would one day become akin to the military. ‘We will disclose the risks and dare people to play,’ Gladwell wrote in 2013. ‘That’s what the army does. That’s what football is going to become.’ If rugby went in a similar direction, the number of people playing the sport would plummet, something no sports enthusiast wants to see. Rugby’s concussion problem is as real as the NFL’s or boxing’s, let’s just hope the sport’s governing bodies can move quickly to mitigate what could be an incredibly damaging revelation, and work to reduce the number of, and severity of, concussions in the game. 

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