Rugby’s Concussion Problem

Credit: Travis (flickr)
Credit: Travis (flickr)
Credit: Travis (flickr)

Benjamin Robinson was just 14-years-old when he died playing for Carrickfergus Grammar School on a cold afternoon in January 2011. Initially suffering a concussion, he remained on the field despite visibly clear indications to other players and those in attendance that his physical state had been substantially compromised. He sustained several more heavy tackles, and twenty-five minutes after first receiving that concussion he collapsed on the pitch never to regain consciousness. The inquest to his death was told he suffered what is known as ‘second impact syndrome’, escalating his concussion, with the coroner officially ruling his death as a subdural haemorrhage caused by this.


Deeper understanding has shown the true extent that violent shaking to the head, a clear characteristic of rugby, has on an individual’s brain when previous evidence suggested direct blows to the head were of greater worry. As medical awareness and knowledge of concussion continues to evolve, it’s clear the force of the brain hitting against the inner skull has the possibility to cause mild disorientation even on a single jolt. Over extended time frames these minor incidents, potentially combined with more serious ones, can wreak havoc on the physical and mental health of players.


Several ex-rugby pros have now come forward detailing the serious cognitive and psychological problems they now suffer from their time in the game. Increasingly competitive juvenile rugby has created an environment that encourages underage players to persevere through various types of injuries as well as develop their physiques at earlier ages. Currently there are no penalties in existence for teams who leave players on the field if it is later found they should have been removed from play or fail to adhere to Graduated Return to Play protocol.


Karen O’Boyle works for Acquired Brain Injury Ireland and over the past few years has noticed an attitude shift when it comes to concussion and rugby. She is glad to see increased awareness for ‘the most discussed injury within the sport’.

In regards future changes in the management of head injuries, Garrett Coughlan medical coordinator for the IRFU, pointed toward the association’s developments that are ‘on going and constantly under review’.


Meanwhile, ABI Ireland would like to see ‘mandatory use of the GRTP programme’ as well as removal from the field without reintroduction on suspicion of any player picking up a concussion. The group hopes to see more medical assistance present at games as well as a ‘concussion clinic service available to those in need of assessment’ where appropriate.


While it would be wrong to directly compare rugby with professional boxing, there should be attention paid to the far more forward thinking steps now being taken by boxing commissions around the world. The British Boxing Board of Control instigates rules that see progressively longer returns to action depending on the severity of a head injury, as well as thorough medical examination on a much more regular basis. There is even the possibility of fighters being suspended on decision of a medical board.


There is no doubt that the way in which wider society looks at the treatment of concussions is evolving, but if rugby governing bodies continue to move forward without any serious monitoring program or mandatory penalties for breaches of protocol then it will only be a matter of time before the next tragedy is making headlines.


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