Rarely a day goes by without the issue of concussion in rugby union raising its, excuse the pun, head. Here Robin Davey looks at the reasons why more players are being affected and argues for one rule change that could lessen the dangers for players.
Another week goes by which brings yet another top flight retirement from rugby forced by concussion and its after effects while another has to take a lengthy break from the game.
Dragons and former Newport, Bristol and Exeter wing/centre Adam Hughes has been told to quit the game after MRI scans revealed brain damage, while England captain Dylan Hartley must take a break of several months after suffering a third concussion.
As a result Hartley will miss England’s summer tour to South Africa when they will play three Tests though he is hoping to resume his career at the start of next season.
Hughes admits he was left with no choice after scans and the resultant specialist advice he received at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. It also means he will be unable to pursue a flying career after qualifying as a pilot, instead it’s a career as a financial adviser that now beckons for him.
Hartley, on the other hand, after saying back in 2016 following two concussions, “If I got another one I’d be worried, if I hit my head again what’s that going to mean?” is now confessing “I’ll be back next season to help my respective teams push on.”
Whether Hartley is right or wrong to keep going, Hughes’ injury clearly meant he had no choice. It also adds to the growing debate in rugby about the ever more serious effects of serious head knocks.
Hughes writes in his final South Wales Argus column that state-of-the-art scanners were now in operation to prevent players from going a game too far after they have suffered concussion.
But he also adds that he doesn’t think there’s a lot more World Rugby can do to mitigate against players suffering concussion, stressing that players are getting a lot stronger and more explosive.
And that’s the point-players are fully professional, they spend the week pumping iron, building up their muscles, getting ever stronger and fitter. Then they let all that pent-up power out on the pitch at weekends.
And instead of looking for space, as was the case some years or even decades ago, now players actively look for collisions in order to tie players in before creating space outside.
Yet the human body remains the same, still susceptible to any kind of knock or blow never mind the full blooded ones on the rugby pitch.
World Rugby has, indeed, done a lot to mitigate against these unfortunate episodes like taking a lot of the heat out of scrums, legislating against collisions when a player is in the air under a high ball and outlawing tackles remotely near the neck area and certainly not around the head.
All this has led many to complain that rugby has gone soft, often complaining that in many respects the game has become more like touch rugby.
They may have a point, but it’s all a result of the ever increasing power game rugby has become.
Yet there is still something else the authorities can do, and that’s clean up the area around the ruck and restrict some of the damaging effects.
The clear-out has become one of the most, if not the most dangerous part of the game where an unguarded player with his back to the opposition is suddenly thundered out of the way by a hulking onrushing forward. That surely can’t be right.
Meanwhile, more and more players are sidelined by head injuries of varying seriousness, some like Hughes forced to finish altogether. And the trend shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.