It has been quite a year for head knocks in rugby union in New Zealand. But “head knocks” is a euphemism. Let’s call it concussion, because that’s what it is.
First of all there was Conrad Smith. Twice.
Knocked out in the first match of the season. However, despite failing the on-field concussion test, the mandatory stand-down was ignored by the Hurricanes, and he was back playing a week later. It remains unexplained how that was allowed to happen; Hammett’s response in interviews during that week was to shrug his shoulders and laugh it off.
Yet nobody grilled him further on that; the inference being that the on-field test was just a bit of a joke, and a procedure that had to be gone through. This is our game, stop bothering us.
But there was more to come. In South Africa in early May he was knocked out for longer. It was impossible not to be sickened by the sight of his head jerking back as it hit the ground. Yet he was back playing for the Hurricanes later in the month.
Why bother? The brain is the most important part of the body and in Smith’s case, it is meant to be a very capable one. It is incomprehensible really. Smith has been an All Black for 10 years, he has a RWC winners medal, is extremely unlikely to be around for the next one and will never win a Super Rugby trophy unless he changes franchises.
And he has a law degree. Why burn up a post-rugby life for the sake of … playing some test against France.
Then there was Piri Weepu. The same Piri Weepu who was pushed back out onto the field in the 2006 Super Final in the mist at Lancaster Park after being knocked out.
This time he was knocked out against the Blues a couple of weeks ago. Cold and unconscious, the match stood still for 10 minutes as he was carefully and delicately taken from the field to receive medical attention.
Two days later he was named in an All Black squad.
The thing is; concussion is not just another injury. It affects the brain, and the symptoms are far-reaching. Playing on with a broken arm or ruptured testicles are part of NZ rugby folklore, but they are isolated parts of the body. Playing on after recent concussion is just plain stupid.
But strangely, the New Zealand rugby media does not like to question any of this. Even Kieran Read left the field in a match a week before the first test with a “head knock”. There was not one reference to this in the build-up for this test; just a lot of fluff about how he would be captaining the All Blacks for the first time at home.
When I question Jim Kayes on this on Twitter the response was a bit prickly. “So you’re an expert on concussion then?” Denial. At least he replied to the question. On the whole this seems ‘The’ subject that must not be discussed
This is not just an issue with rugby in New Zealand, it is a growing issue globally.
There is growing evidence that the effects are so much greater than just the immediate ones. In fact the link between repeated concussions and subsequent mental health issues in professional athletes is becoming compelling. The condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is a medical definition for long-term brain damage, is now known to be a major contributing factor to suicide rates.
Currently in the States, the NFL is facing lawsuits from over 1,000 ex-players that it failed to treat concussions properly and attempted to conceal possible links between football and brain injuries. Even by American standards, that’s a lot of libel action.
This is just at the visible, professional level. From all accounts the “Get over it” pressure is worse in the amateur ranks.
Remember that the doctors who perform these checks are employed by the franchises themselves. They are under pressure, implicit or otherwise, to make sure the players spend as little time as possible out of action. That is not implying corruption; that is just how it works.
What is required is an independent body to make assessments with no agenda. Something similar to what now takes place with drug tests.
In addition to this, how about more of an acceptance from all involved; administrators, doctors, media and even the players that you just don’t muck around with the brain.