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Donegal v Cavan, Ulster SFC Final: McHugh backing effort to stop head injuries

St Tiernach's Park, Clones , Sunday, June 23

Serious issue: Donegal’s Ryan McHugh (right) suffered two head injuries last year
Serious issue: Donegal’s Ryan McHugh (right) suffered two head injuries last year
Jarlath Og Burns of Armagh
Top form: Ryan McHugh in action for Donegal against Kildare
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

This has been one of those weeks when one of the biggest issues in contact sport has come in for the kind of scrutiny it not only deserves, but absolutely needs in order to ensure the safety of the players.

The blow to the head suffered by Armagh midfielder Jarlath Og Burns during their draw with Cavan two weeks ago had many suspecting he had a case of concussion.

Official sources within Armagh since moved to clarify that this was not the case, but given he collapsed in the dressing room after the replay and spent some time in Cavan General Hospital suffering the effects of dehydration, the area of head injuries has come into sharper focus.

The truth is that even within the medical world, concussion is intangible. It affects players differently. In the past week, a number of media outlets reported Burns' enforced substitution the first day and the GAA guideline of a seven-day return to play protocol.

However, that is only a mere guideline.

Take Donegal's Ryan McHugh for example. Last year he was forced to sit out two periods of football.

"My first one was a bit different because I didn't get the symptoms until about a week-and-a-half later," the two-time All-Star said.

"We were training in Convoy and I just felt dizzy, and my vision got a bit blurry. I went straight over to Kevin (Dr Kevin Moran, Donegal team doctor), he pulled me straight out and got it checked out. The scan showed I had a slight bleed on the brain and that was the reason I had to take the eight weeks out.

"It's a strange injury because you're looking at somebody and you maybe don't realise there's something wrong with them."

The second time it happened, the county season was all but over. But having suffered another blow to his head the decision was taken to rest for 10 weeks. It led to him missing the entire Donegal club Championship and Kilcar's defence of the title.

"As far as I've been told by Dr Kevin Moran to do with concussion, if you take the correct time out that you'll be 100%.

"At the time I got my concussions, I was out the first time for eight weeks I think, and then the second time I took 10 weeks off," he explained.

"To be fair to Kevin and the Donegal medical team, if there's anything wrong like that, we wouldn't be allowed to train or whatever it is."

Watching the Ulster semi-final, McHugh felt sympathy for Burns.

"I think it was just an unfortunate incident, the two players going for the hop ball. At the time you feel sorry for him. Any given day, no matter who it is, you never want to see a player getting hurt where it could affect them down the road.

"Hopefully Jarlath Og is okay because he's a top player."

It appeared after the opening couple of weeks into the All-Ireland Championship that the GAA was going to come down heavy on head-high challenges in a bid to cut down concussion-related injuries.

They issued guidelines on challenges and made it clear that the sanction would be a red card.

That same weekend, Down's Caolan Mooney was red carded after catching Armagh player Aidan Nugent high. The following week, it was a similar fate for Dublin player Paul Mannion, who later had his red card overturned, but Mooney had no joy with his appeal.

Since then, referees have gone back to awarding yellow cards for head-high challenges in multiple examples.

"It is probably difficult for referees," McHugh added.

"In my case sometimes you just be smaller than the man, if the likes of Michael Murphy or those size of men are tackling me… I suppose it's difficult for a referee to distinguish what's deliberate and what's not deliberate.

"You can just misplace a tackle and you don't mean to hurt anybody by that. It's getting that right balance between what's deliberate and what's not deliberate. To be fair to the referees I think they've been doing a top job this year."

At the end of last year during the All-Stars tour to America, McHugh admitted he had discussions with his father, the former All-Ireland winner Martin, about altering his style of play to prevent being tackled high.

As he explains, it hasn't quite required that.

"I probably haven't changed it that much," he said.

"Maybe last year I was playing more as a half-forward, this year I'm playing more as a half-back, maybe that's more tactical from a management point of view than to do with me.

"It is extremely difficult when you're in the heat of Championship battle to try and change your game.

"Donegal as a team are trying to kick the ball more and play more offensively so maybe that changes things a bit."

McHugh agrees there is much to explore. The GAA has been pro-active in seeking out information and the medical, scientific and welfare committee within the GAA is made up of impressive individuals.

Recently, GAA representatives attended a seminar on head injuries in Belgium. The work is ongoing into research and how best to address it.

But still, there is always more that can be done.

"I can only speak from my experience and I was taken care of 100% by Dr Kevin Moran and all our medical team," McHugh said.

"When I received the bangs Kevin took me out straight away and the next day, I was in for a CAT scan to assess everything, and unfortunately it showed up that I had a concussion.

"On medical advice I wasn't allowed to play for eight weeks at the time.

"I was handled extremely well, but yes, we can always get better and get more research on concussion."

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