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Alan Quinlan

It's down to the players to set a good example when it comes to head injuries in rugby

Alan Quinlan



Iain Henderson seemed to make light of his HIA on a podcast following Ireland’s loss to France

Iain Henderson seemed to make light of his HIA on a podcast following Ireland’s loss to France


Iain Henderson seemed to make light of his HIA on a podcast following Ireland’s loss to France

“By the letter of the law, it’s shoulder into face and that’s a red card. But I don’t think on this occasion he deserved a red card, I don’t think there was massive force in it and I think there was mitigation that helps him. I thought it was a yellow.”

I was wrong to say the above words when analysing Tom Wood's clear-out on Josh van der Flier two months ago, a judgment call that many of us at the RDS struggled with.

Hamish Watson was similarly wrong to call out Zander Fagerson's red card last weekend for his dangerous, high clear-out attempt on Wyn Jones as "rubbish" - a claim he later apologised for.

Iain Henderson was probably wrong to joke about trying not to copy Cian Healy's HIA answers on a podcast this week too.

We all make mistakes, and amid a great sea of change, such as the one currently engulfing rugby, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees.

Collectively, however, we must do better when it comes to how we address concussions and the dangerous play that can cause them.

We cannot look at the game through the same dusty lenses any more; having the best of intentions is no longer a legitimate defence. You are as likely to see red for recklessness now as you are for maliciousness - player safety supersedes all.

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The Van der Flier incident, towards the tail end of Leinster's 35-19 Champions Cup pool-stage win, was one that triggered deep reflection in me. And I say that from the perspective of someone who has been vocal on the need to make the game safer for quite some time.

The referee, his two assistants, the TMO and three of the game's pundits - myself, Brian O'Driscoll and Dylan Hartley - didn't feel the Northampton back-rower deserved to be sent off for a clear-out that saw his shoulder make contact with the face of the Leinster openside while Van der Flier was sniffing out a turnover.

The eighth person asked to assess the incident, Eoin Reddan, insisted it should have been a red card "in terms of where we should be heading". Reddan was right and proven so when Wood was handed a three-week suspension days later.

I saw reasons for mitigation: Van der Flier wasn't protecting himself; his head was raised as he sought permission from the referee to steal the ball. Wood didn't launch himself into the clear-out either.

He caught the Leinster man high but anyone who has hit a ruck like that will understand how easily such a clear-out can go awry. It still wasn't a legitimate defence though - I got that one wrong. I hold my hands up.

We can no longer allow our experiences of the past to cloud our judgment of the present.

Similarly, when it comes to dangerous play, we cannot let parochialism have any sway.

Emotions were high when Watson, in his assessment of the decision to dismiss Fagerson, at such a crucial juncture in their defeat to Wales, said: "That was a rubbish call. An absolutely dreadful call. That's not rugby."

Scotland's Triple Crown and Grand Slam hopes had been cruelly snatched away, Watson was hurting. But when rugby is working so hard to reduce head injuries, decisions like that are non-negotiable.

Fagerson's four-week ban, confirmed the day after Watson's apology for his comments, rubber-stamped that the on-field decision was correct. Hopefully lessons can be learned across the board.

There is also plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the tone of language we use around concussion and HIA protocols; it's a serious matter that could do without being trivialised.

Earlier this week, a number of days after captaining Ireland for the first time, Henderson spoke on 'Potholes&Penguins', a podcast presented by former Ireland internationals Andrew Trimble and Barry Murphy.

Sporting several stitches above his right eye, which was still partially closed following his nasty head clash with Healy, the trio engaged in a light-hearted discussion around the incident and the processes that followed:

Barry Murphy: "How's the head?"

Iain Henderson: "Yeah, grand, good. I'm going to do another HIA today, so anything I say here can probably be wiped out because of that."

Andrew Trimble: "I think your head would be quite nice to collide with 'Hendy'."

BM: "Where do you go to when you go off together (after a collision like that)?"

IH: "Me and 'Church'? We went into the same room. You go into the HIA and they read you a load of words, like 10 words in a row. And then you've got to repeat them back.

"This was a disaster because there was only a small blue curtain separating Church and I, and you know when someone tells you, 'Whatever you do, don't do this', you automatically want to do it.

"Church was having his words read out and I was sitting there going, 'Oh god, don't listen to Church's words'."

Look, I've participated in plenty of these droll chats over the years but we all need to be careful with our tone around concussions.

The rugby world is watching and players, present and past, need to lead by example.

While there are complex challenges ahead for the game, it's important to recognise how far things have come in recent years.

Yes, Six Nations matches to date have averaged about two HIAs per game, and while that may seem like a lot, the fact they are being identified and assessed is a step in the right direction.

Prior to 2011, the doctor had on average 62 seconds to assess a player following a blow to the head, which led to 50% of players staying on the pitch after suffering a concussion. That doesn't happen any more.

Recent studies, in the French club game and at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, have shown that reducing the tackle height and increasing sanctions for high shots is helping to decrease injuries and concussion numbers.

We have independent doctors at every match now, keeping an eye on multiple camera angles to check for potential head injuries.

World Rugby are regularly running seminars to educate players; they are working hard to make the game safer.

From a wider perspective, the rates of injury are directly related to the level of intensity at which the game is played - so, injuries in the amateur game are four times less likely than in the pro ranks.

Within that 'community rugby' bubble, the chances of injury for U12s is four times lower than that of their adult club-mates.

With better coaching around tackle and clean-out techniques, head injury risks can be reduced even further.

There needs to be an increased focus on tackling around the ankles when at full stretch or using a bear-hug type technique when trying to stop a pick-and-go.

Breakdown work obviously still needs plenty of attention as we have seen by the red-card incidents of Fagerson and Peter O'Mahony.

Recognising the problem is the first step towards a solution.

Belfast Telegraph

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