Marco van Staden is key to Springboks’ Rugby World Cup hopes – but should he be playing?

Marco van Staden is key to Springboks’ Rugby World Cup hopes – but should he be playing rugby?
Marco van Staden’s career appeared to be over after he sustained a head injury while playing for Leicester Tigers - Getty Images/Alex Livesey

Do you remember Leicester’s Boxing Day win over Bristol in 2021? You might, since Guy Porter’s try with the clock in the red kept the Tigers’ unbeaten record alive, one that ultimately would lead to them lifting the Premiership trophy six months later under the tutelage of Steve Borthwick, the now-England head coach.

The recollection of that day for Leicester’s No 8, Marco van Staden, would probably be rather different. He had to depart in the 23rd minute following a sickening clash of heads with Bristol back-rower Fitz Harding – and would never play for Leicester again, failing to quickly overcome his concussion.

The Tigers, to the credit of their medical team, agreed an early release to Van Staden’s contract in July 2022, with Borthwick confirming the back-rower’s stay had been cut short by injury eight months after the Bristol incident. Van Staden returned to South Africa to continue his head-injury recovery having made just eight appearances for Leicester. The whispers were, given that this was not his first head injury, that Van Staden’s career was over; that the back-rower – nicknamed Eskom, after the South African power company, owing to his (now ironic) ability to put opponents’ lights out – would not play again.

Fast-forward just over a year and the picture is markedly contrasting. Van Staden has shot to prominence of late after being declared the Springboks’ third-choice, and very much make-shift, hooker following the tournament-ending injury to world-leading hooker Malcolm Marx. The flanker, on the South African bench against Ireland on Saturday as one of seven forward replacements, is being converted into a stop-gap front-rower; a position on the pitch that places as much strain on the head and neck area as any.

Van Staden’s return to playing elite rugby began with Jake White’s Bulls and then progressed to Jacques Nienaber’s Springboks. Just 67 days after that mutual Leicester release, Van Staden, after spending eight months out of the game due to concussion, was announcing his new club, the Bulls. At no point in the announcement did the South African franchise address the head-injury cloud that had circled over Van Staden since sustaining the injury.

Ten months after Van Staden’s return to the Bulls, lawyers representing 169 ex-professional and 66 former amateur sportsmen and women – Steve Thompson and Alix Popham among them – appeared in court for the first preliminary hearing of a test case being brought against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, regarding early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, a progressive and fatal brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries), caused, they claim, by blows to the head during their careers.

Back in South Africa, Van Staden’s concussion saga was barely mentioned. White, the Bulls’ head coach, when asked by News24, said that Van Staden had been “symptom-free for eight months” and had not “even remotely complained of getting a headache during his own training during that period”. White added: “The risk is no different to anyone else.”

Nienaber, the Springboks’ head coach, seems to have only publicly addressed the situation once, just after Van Staden’s return to the Bulls.

“He was part of us last year and delivered some proper performances but unfortunately he was out with concussion,” Nienaber said. “I went out and saw him when we did alignment camps overseas and he was in the process of getting cleared.”

Telegraph Sport approached South Africa Rugby this week, but the governing body did not wish to comment.

‘I thought no one would take a chance on me’

Van Staden himself confronted the matter fleetingly just before signing with the Bulls. “Lately, medical experts in England and here have given me the green light to play again. Every brain function tested was normal and even above normal,” he told Netwerk24.

Out of necessity, rugby has made great strides in the identification, management and prevention of concussion but the elephant in the room with Van Staden – the education of symptoms and the attitude towards them – shows there is still work to be done.

“There’s a part of your mind that thinks it is over,” Van Staden later said, after signing with the Bulls. “Not so much because of the injury but [the conversation] around concussion is a difficult subject for teams all over the world.

“I thought no one would take a chance on me because it’s a risk, even though I felt fine and good to play again. But we believe the Lord has a plan.”

Let’s hope so.