Thursday, November 20, 2014

Knowing where the line is

Exciting times for Irish rugby but we must always be mindful of the need to drive cultural change on the crucial topic of concussion.


The screengrab I'm using above to illustrate this piece is not meant to implicate Yoann Maestri, the French lock you see diving head-first into a ruck and catching the Wallabies' Saia Fainga'a (thankfully a relatively minor blow to the face) last weekend.

Nor is it meant to implicate Fox Sports commentator Rob Kafer, who provided the caption as he watched back the replay of the incident.

To all of us who know rugby, what Maestri is doing is "clearing out".  Maybe it's being done a tad more aggressively than normal, and with his head bowed he certainly isn't paying much mind to what's in his path.

Yet when viewed purely in the context of the current "culture" of the sport of rugby union at its highest level, there is nothing inherently wrong with Kafer's description. 

But then just a few nights later there was a feature on RTÉ's Prime Time programme about the tragic story of 14-year-old Ben Robinson, who passed away after playing on in a schools' game in 2011 despite having been knocked unconscious at one point.  The death was officially recorded by the coroner as being as a result of what is known as "Second Impact Syndrome".

None of us can fail to be affected by the Robinson family's story.  The feeling of helplessness for his poor parents surely cannot be measured.  Without question there were those at fault that day.  The young lad should have taken no further part in the match no matter what he nor anyone else may have said.  

As often as I disagree with George Hook I must admit that in his new podcast with Peter O'Reilly, Down The Blind Side, he has talked much sense on the topic of how schools rugby needs to distinguish itself from the pro level of the sport.  And this viewpoint is one that needs to be taken seriously.

In fairness, the IRB/World Rugby (here) and the IRFU (here) have done extensive work in this area.   This involves the extremely difficult challenge of finding out exactly where to draw the line between playing the game to its fullest and fully addressing the area of player safety.

Among the numerous reports and publishings, the key phrase as far as I am concerned is "driving cultural change".

By no means am I an expert on this topic and in many ways I don't feel justified writing about it.  Having said that, for the rugby community to deal with the area of concussion sufficiently it is not about staying quiet - we have to be willing to discuss it taking into account the opinions of those who do have the proper qualifications.

It is crucial that when we pass on this great sport to our offspring we ensure that as much as they understand the importance of winning Test caps and Heineken Cups, of keeping themselves in peak physical condition, or even something as fundamental as knowing where the tryline is, they also have access to everything there is to know about the seriousness of brain injury.

Personally, as much as I love the sport of rugby union (and running a website on it as I do that's obviously quite a bit), I wouldn't want my children looking at Maestri's action or anything like it and come away with the impression that it's ok.  Nor would I want them to feel any kind of pressure to carry on playing if they feel there is even a hint of a head injury.

It may be human nature for children to want to emulate on their school pitches what they see in top Test arenas, but by the same token they are also willing to respond to the proper guidance of those immediately around them.  

Once the blazers, medics, coaches and parents are singing from the same hymn sheet it is surely has to be possible to get the entry levels of the sport where they need to be.   

As we prepare for another exciting weekend of test rugby not only here in Dublin but all over Europe, hopefully we can all be part of this cultural change and stay mindful of the lines that must not be crossed.  JLP
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