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Rugby still in a fuzzy, concussed state but seismic change looms from an unlikely source

In next week’s closing, year-end wrap, we’ll take a look back at some of the eye-opening and light-hearted rugby moments of 2022.

For now, it’s an opportunity to update the No.1 issue facing rugby – not the fortunes and misfortunes of Eddie Jones, Rassie Erasmus, Dave Rennie, Ian Foster or Scott Robertson, but the handling of head injuries and the long-term implications for the sport.

By any fair assessment, 2022 has seen change for the better, albeit at the margins. Awareness around the seriousness of the concussion issue has risen and, even if change hasn’t always been enthusiastically embraced, there is now broader acceptance from coaches, players and fans, that tackle heights have to be lowered in order to protect the head, and that this is a desirable objective.

Match officials have taken on the role assigned them by World Rugby; a blunt-force front-line infantry, hell bent on rubbing all head contact – reckless and inadvertent – out of the game. That’s been supported by a judiciary routinely pumping out three to four week catch-all suspensions. As a result, there is a sense that player behaviour is changing.

The problems associated with this approach haven’t really gone away. Every time a player’s head snaps back the spotlight falls onto the minutiae. Where is the initial point of contact? What is the degree of force? Are there any mitigating circumstances that apply for the transgressor?

Caleb Clarke of the Blues (R) is sent off with a red card by referee James Doleman during the round seven Super Rugby Pacific match between the Blues and the Moana Pasifika at Eden Park on April 02, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

One cost of this approach is that sometimes, players are caught in the net that shouldn’t be. And nobody likes it when things are unfair.

No matter where the line is set or whatever the weapon used – the nipple, the shoulder, the head, the bicep – we’ve all witnessed referees talking themselves into sending players off who shouldn’t be sent off, and talking themselves into not sending off players who should be.

As they’re entitled to do, players defend themselves, but every time a suspension is rescinded – as was the case this week for Leinster’s Cian Healy – fans are left confused and the main message is watered down.

That’s a function of applying absolute conclusions (referees determining precise points of contact from deficient, one-dimensional vision) and absolute actions (card sanctions) to a sport where play is fast and dynamic and subjectivity in refereeing is a fact of life.

But if the accepted ethos is to rule for the greater good, those imperfections are a cost worth bearing. That’s predominantly because of increased awareness of the heavy, personal cost paid by affected players.

A victim of a high tackle in last month’s Women’s World Cup final, the greatest day in Portia Woodman’s rugby career is only so because she has been told about it, and watched it back on replay.

It is likely that in quiet reflective moments away from the pitch, Woodman, like countless others, will ponder whether that collision, added to all of the others sustained over a career, will impede her middle and later life.

This is the place where high impact, high contact incidents and concerns around Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and sub-concussive hits, intersect.

Last year, World Rugby introduced a guideline (not a mandate) that teams be limited to no more than 15 minutes contact training per week. Also, in an effort to limit the accumulation of sub-concussive hits over a lifetime, and to recognise the increased dangers for children, the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), which now has an Australian branch, has called for contact sport to be prohibited before the age of 14.

Work of researchers like the Sydney Brain Bank and others is beginning to highlight the scourge of CTE.

With that, comes the scary possibility that players, even if they are protected from incurring heavy trauma head injuries from today onwards, may already be suffering from CTE due to the hits, large and small, they have accumulated.

That’s an uncomfortable topic that few sports, including rugby, seem up to tackling. Hence the propensity to call for ‘more research’, or to hide behind watery statements from an increasingly discredited Concussion in Sports Group (CISG), whose recent meeting in Amsterdam left observers pessimistic that the next ‘Concussion Statement’ will be little more than another opaque device for sports to use at their convenience.

Concerningly, a World Rugby conference that followed soon after, also held in Amsterdam, seemed to achieve little more than cast doubt over CTE links, and to reinforce the ‘steady as she goes’ status quo.

Who and what then, are the agencies that will drive change? A solution that for rugby, might look something like a modified game that better protects all participants from brain injury, whilst retaining all of the core elements of strategy, speed, strength, athleticism, physicality, courage and contest for the ball that makes rugby what it is.

One thing we know for certain is that active players are not that change agent. With short career earnings windows, players have shown no propensity to lobby their masters to play less often. Witness the Wallabies’ Nic White, visibly unsteady after a heavy knock against Ireland, upset at being forced off the field and out of the following match, critical of the very protocols designed to protect him.

Neither do other sports provide any worthwhile lead. The AFL’s 2022 final series was marked by confoundingly inconsistent – and incompetent – application of its concussion protocols.

In the NRL, the sight of old-school enforcers Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Nelson Asofa-Solomona “gracing” the field week after week, with little or no recrimination for repeated, forceful head contact to opponents, signifies how serious rugby league is about protecting player’s brains.

Nic White of Australia leaves the pitch for a leaves the pitch for a head injury assessment during the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match between Ireland and Australia at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/SportsfilE via Getty Images)

(Photo By Ramsey Cardy/SportsfilE via Getty Images)

In the current football World Cup, Iranian goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand suffered a sickening head clash with teammate Majid Hosseini. In the aftermath, it quickly became apparent there was no understanding of the protocol in place to handle matters, nor was vastly experienced TV commentator Martin Tyler able to communicate the protocol or what action was needed.

Neither player was assessed for head injury. Beiranvand was essentially left to his own devices, the match held up for a number of minutes to allow him to decide on his own if he was fit to continue. Quite incredibly – this is 2022, not 1962 – a teammate applied the age-old solution of squirting water on his face, presumably to help wake Beiranvand up.

While World Rugby might believe it is on the right path, it is lobby groups such as Progressive Rugby, notwithstanding their sphere of influence being mostly in the United Kingdom, who, through their ability to tap into the wider sensibility, are vitally important agents for change.

Undoubtedly however, it is the landmark court action lodged against World Rugby, now with approximately 200 claimants attached, including Steve Thompson, Alix Popham, Ryan Jones, Michael Lipman and Carl Hayman, that will lay down a marker for the future of the game.

If it is disappointing that progress might come about only because of a court determination, with sports like rugby either unwilling or unable to forge a more definitive path forward, so be it.

For example, there has been ample opportunity for World Rugby to appoint a global head injury or concussion commissioner to oversee and manage this particular issue. A leadership role that would encompass game modification; officiating and judiciary; research and medical; player welfare; and education, engagement and communication.

Such an initiative would ensure that rugby controls its own destiny, and not be at the mercy of courts, and potentially, politicians.

Enter Australia, and the emergence of a change agent from a most unlikely source.

Greens senator Lidia Thorpe might be an unlikely fit for many rugby fans, yet it is at her instigation the matter of head injury in sport is to be referred to the Australian Senate for inquiry and report by the end of March 2023, with completion expected by the end of June.

The aim of the inquiry is to provide recommendations to the federal government on drafting legislation for concussion management and reducing exposure for CTE risk. In essence, to take the formation of guidelines away from sports, who currently have disparate guidelines, and little or no accountability when it comes to complying with them.

Speaking about the pending inquiry, neurophysiologist, Professor Alan Pearce told The Roar, “having nationally legislated policies/laws means that there will be greater adherence to concussion management as well as consistency in when young adolescents can graduate to full contact sports”.

Further, Pearce said he hoped there would be an outcome that led to, “greater transparency in the scientific research commissioned and conducted by sports, whereby the outcomes of these studies would be published in the appropriate journals.”

“There is also the potential for funding derived as a result to be distributed in a fair, equitable and transparent manner, where money for concussion/CTE research would perhaps go to an independent body (say the NHMRC) who would then provide the framework for applying and allocating funding to researchers based on their research output, rather than just grant success,” he concluded.

In short, an end to sports setting and marking their own homework by commissioning ‘friendly’ research with vague or pre-determined outcomes.

Cynics might cast an eye towards Canberra and other senate inquiries that have failed to deliver meaningful and tangible results. But it would be foolish for Australia’s football codes to ignore the potential for important, game-changing outcomes.

One potential end-result is for head injuries in professional sport to be conclusively defined in law as workplace injuries. To date, SafeWork NSW and Worksafe Victoria have shown a reluctance to delve too deeply into the performance of the NRL and AFL, but with the inquiry likely to focus on OH&S compliance and workers compensation for affected players, these bodies will potentially be made more accountable.

Crucially, obligations placed upon sports to improve their practices would sit squarely in new IR legislation. Any sport lobbying to water down proposed legislation aimed at making their own employees/participants safer would be playing a very risky game.

Here is the rub for rugby in Australia. To some extent ‘off the hook’ because courts have previously ruled that jurisdiction over rugby’s laws reside with World Rugby in Dublin, new legislation could require Rugby Australia to comply with local workplace safety laws, potentially encompassing the prevention and management of head injury.

Think of this as a local subsidiary of an overseas industrial manufacturer being unable to shield behind lax safety standards applicable in its head office location, but being forced to adhere to local OHS standards and requirements.

Potentially, that introduces a whole heap of responsibility, governance and potential liability for Rugby Australia it currently doesn’t have. For coaches, medical staff and administrators, when it comes to head injury, things are about to get serious.

The narrative in Australian rugby has been dominated in recent years by some momentous events and high-profile individuals. Think the axing of the Western Force from Super Rugby, the Israel Folau saga, 10 Wallaby captains leading a palace coup against Raelene Castle, and Mathieu Raynal’s insistence that Bernard Foley play faster.

It sounds faintly ridiculous, but don’t count out Thorpe – a polarising female, indigenous, Greens politician from Melbourne – having a bigger influence on rugby in Australia than any of them.

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