Loose Pass: Rugby’s existential peril over concussion crisis

·6-min read
 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a looming earthquake and New Zealand’s re-jig…

Existence on the line

“Rugby union is walking headlong with its eyes closed into a catastrophic situation,” said Ryan Jones a week ago when revealing in public his early-onset dementia diagnosis. The reports on Monday morning that the legal case involving Jones and several others fighting a similar legacy from their career in rugby union is now destined for the courts made for eye-opening reading.

There is only one precedent for what could transpire: the settlements between America’s NFL and a number of players reaching into the tens of thousands. Worth a combined $1.76bn, the two settlements came only after a decade of ugly denial by the NFL that brain injuries from repeated sub-concussive contact (never mind the concussive stuff) were even a thing.

Even in the wake of the settlements, the NFL had installed concussion protocols on the sidelines which were routinely ignored or circumnavigated. One player in 2017 suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit that left him limp on the ground. A quick protocol turnaround then saw him back on the field for his team’s next possession a few minutes later.

Denial of the problem was undeniably important for the NFL’s business bottom line and popularity. And so the organisation initially closed ranks, made a few noises about new protocols, changed a few rules to eliminate some of the more brutal practices, then carried on as usual. Investment in research and technology, most pertinently mouthguard and helmet sensors to collect data on accumulated impacts, have been a better step in the right direction, but they all came a staggering seven years after the initial settlement.

The threat is undeniably existential for the NFL. There is growing clamour to ban tackling or full-contact football for children, which is good for protecting them, but it has been proven from data that three years of full-contact football more than doubles the risk of chronic brain injury. Considering children would have to have played the game at a high and intense level for more than twice that before even getting to the draft, banning tackling for the kids hardly seems an effective strategy long-term.

If the threat is existential for the NFL, it has to be for rugby too. Not only does rugby simply not have the financial means to even vaguely consider the kind of settlement the NFL carved out, rugby’s governance structure is not built to deal with this sort of action. There are close to 200 players from multiple countries in this action, which is being launched against World Rugby, the RFU and the WRU and claims the unions were negligent in failing to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent injury caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows. What might happen in case of the national unions being found liable; does that create a flood of claims against all unions? Would some go under while others might, on account of their size, be able to muddle through financially? And what if some unions were found liable but others not?

The crucial difference between the NFL and rugby is that the NFL, effectively, is the employer of the players. No sort of unilateral bond exists like that in rugby and the lines of liability are many – consider also, for example, in countries like France and England, clubs could get caught up. But from World Rugby downward, it is unlikely that any organisation has the financial clout to settle with players on the terms the NFL ended up doing – and the NFL’s was an out-of-court settlement.

Denial has, again undeniably, marked some of rugby’s responses to the problem of concussion. Even with all this going on, for example, there were still players even in the recent international Test series clearly taking significant head knocks with clear and obvious initial consequences, yet either playing on or – and this is worse – being taken off but then seeing the concussion protocols somehow played so the ‘mandatory’ stand-down period was circumnavigated.

Meanwhile, the game gets ever-more collision-based, played by bigger players, better coached to ensure less space and more tackles. A professional game in Ireland last year passed the 500-mark in terms of collisions; we should not forget that many of the players involved in this lawsuit are not there because of isolated concussion incidents, but more because of the thousands of times their brains have been rattled. The instances where players who took a big knock are then re-admitted to the game are the pin-up examples for the lawyers, but everybody playing the game is at risk.

As the news has now broken that this class action is set to go to court, you’d have to assume that World Rugby, the WRU and RFU have now received the legal documents (none said they had on Sunday and therefore none commented). The responses and comments this week will be extremely significant on the direction this problem will go.

Foster left standing

The coaching re-jig in New Zealand seemed extremely peculiar. If the coaching staff is not effective, why sweep the assistants clean and not the main man? Why do it now, giving the new guys only three weeks before a double-header in South Africa?

Ian Foster hand-picked Brad Mooar and John Plumtree at the start of his tenure, insisting that the trio would be able to carry the team through and that they covered all bases. Considering the pressure he is facing, it seems extraordinary that Foster should choose to dispense with colleagues who would have been on his side. It is yet to be made clear whether the decision was made for him or not, although the received wisdom is that Plumtree, at least, did not review well from the player pool either this June or last November.

But New Zealand’s options are, currently, remarkably thin on the ground. Scott Robertson simply does not want to inherit a problem side mid-cycle, nor would he be likely to be able to pick and choose exactly who he wanted, something he would be far more able to do in the immediate aftermath of a World Cup, whatever that campaign’s outcome.

After a week in which the NZR effectively shut up shop for a week while it conducted its reviews, Foster emerged with his role still intact, insisting he was strong, resilient and that he had the dressing room. However, Robertson’s assistant is now Foster’s, while Foster’s assistants are now gone. The change that much of the public clamoured for has not happened, but the pathway has been laid.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan.

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The article Loose Pass: Rugby’s existential peril over concussion crisis appeared first on Planetrugby.com.

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