View from the Street: Rugby needs to do more to tackle concussion

Adam Shaw

View from the Street: Rugby needs to do more to tackle concussion

As a Scot and a rugby fan, it pains me to say that I’ve never witnessed a Scottish Five/Six Nations grand slam triumph, the last one having come on 17th March 1990 – five days before I was born.
 
The national team does appear to have turned a corner in the last few years. However, until fairly recently, I was forced to watch replays of matches from 20 plus years ago to be able to enjoy Scottish success with the oval ball.
 
Despite not having been alive at the time, I’ve watched Tony Stanger’s famous try against the ‘auld enemy’ on countless occasions. It’s a similar story with Gregor Townsend – now Scotland head coach – scything through a shell shocked French defence in 1999 to help secure Scotland’s only Five/Six Nations title (albeit not a grand slam) of the professional era, whilst Jim Calder crossing the white wash against Wales in 1982 is probably my all-time favourite Scottish try in terms of quality.
 
Viewing this historic footage, you realise how much rugby has changed since the sport became professional in 1995. Players were smaller. The game was not as structured. Passing was less crisp. And, most significantly, player welfare measures were minimal, with high tackles and blows to the head commonplace – the treatment in many cases being the “magic sponge”.
 
Fortunately, improvements have been made when it comes to player safety, particularly as they become stronger and faster, and the collisions more bruising as a result. This sometimes led to mutterings – usually from people who have never played the game professionally or have long since retired – about “rugby going soft”.
 
However, as with other aspects of life, progress requires evolution. For example, the bonus points system – adopted by several rugby tournaments over the last ten years – means that teams are incentivised to score tries rather than kicking at goal, fostering more adventurous and attacking rugby. This has benefitted the game and its participants adjusted accordingly.
 
If we’re prepared to implement changes to make rugby more exciting, we should certainly be ready to do so to make it safer, even more so as brain injuries become better understood.
 
Four professional players have been forced to retire this year due to concussion related issues, whilst World Rugby’s Independent Concussion Advisory Group said in 2017 that the sport’s concussion reviews were “not fit for purpose” – highlighting that concussion accounts for 25% of all match-day injuries.
 
Therefore, World Rugby is right to have amended laws regarding tackle height and contact with the head in a bid to tackle this problem.  
 
However, action needs to match these changes. This year’s Autumn Internationals have yielded several instances where World Rugby did not live up to the standards it has set itself.
 
Australia’s Samu Kerevi, attempting to charge down a kick, hit Leigh Halfpenny high and late, meaning the Welsh fullback missed two games due to concussion.
 
English captain and talisman Owen Farrell made two high, shoulder tackles on South Africa’s Andre Esterhuizen and Australia’s Izack Rodda in different matches this month.
 
Perhaps the worst of all was a deliberate, off-the-ball head-butt from South African captain Siya Kolisi on Scottish centre Pete Horne.
 
None of these cases resulted in any kind of sanction for the offending player – neither on the field nor by the citing commissioners after the match – severely undermining World Rugby’s supposed “zero tolerance approach to recklessness and contact with the head”. Whether an act of foul play results in concussion or injury is immaterial. As World Rugby CEO Brett Grosper said, it’s about changing behaviour.
 
This is a reputational issue for rugby. There is the frustration of fans as refereeing decisions are inconsistent, potentially changing the outcome of matches. Angus Gardner, the referee for England v South Africa, has since admitted he should have penalised Farrell for his last-minute tackle on Esterhuizen, a decision which would have handed South Africa a kick at goal and the opportunity to win the match.
 
Second, and more important, is the impact on player safety. It cannot be acceptable that at least one player departs the field with a brain injury every professional match.
 
There are also the age-grade levels to consider. Kids grow up wishing to emulate their heroes and the professional game needs to set the example. Meanwhile, worried parents, concerned at the injuries they see on TV and read about in the papers, may prevent their children from taking up the sport.
 
The risks can never be eliminated completely. As Sam Warburton, former Wales and two-time Lions captain, said recently “rugby is never going to be safe”. However, it is reasonable to expect that measures are taken to minimise the dangers and punish recklessness, and that they are implemented consistently.
 
Next year’s World Cup is set to be the most open incarnation of the sport’s showpiece tournament to date – a rugby jamboree that is expected to deliver considerable commercial benefits and go a long way to extending the appeal of the sport beyond its traditional markets.
 
Ten months is a small window for World Rugby to get its act together before the spotlight hits.

Adam Shaw is an associate partner at Charlotte Street Partners