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Independent doctors needed in rugby and league before fans witness a tragedy

Sam Burgess' 2014 grand final performance showed just how tough he is. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
Roar Pro
21st April, 2015
1

It seems stunning that in the year 2015 one of the main topics of debate in rugby and union continues to be the irresponsible and inconsistent way that both codes deal with players’ concussion.

For decades now, lip-service has been paid to this serious issue by the respective sports’ administrators.

As these sports’ understanding and awareness of the topic has improved in recent decades, a few regulations have been introduced to supposedly address the problem. However, in reality not much genuine progress has been made when it comes to ensuring that the athletes’ long-term health is put before the short-term playing demands of the teams and individuals.

We are still yet to see either code experiment with the use of an independent sideline doctor to rule on whether players from both teams can remain on the field after head knocks. This is a simple solution that for a long time many people have believed would provide a much more effective process than the status quo.

Players are often reluctant to discuss the issue, but last year Wests Tigers’ captain Robbie Farah gave a refreshingly honest appraisal of why the system needed to be changed-

“I almost think there’s got to be an independent doctor at every game. What I’m concerned about is inconsistencies from club to club,” Farah said.

“The other thing is, in a big game I guarantee you that if JT goes down or a Cam Smith or a Paul Gallen – someone like that – the coach and the doctor are doing everything they can to get them back on the field. And I’d be doing the same, and I’d want my teammate to do the same.”

“If my club doctor was there telling me I’m not going back on the field I’d tell him to get stuffed – and he’d probably listen to me.”

Administrators’ failure to act reflects very poorly on them, considering how often the ineffective systems we’ve seen in place have led to negative publicity for the oval ball codes. Time after time we’ve seen the same mistakes repeated.

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After the outrage in 2013 when the Wallabies’ George Smith was badly knocked out against the British Lions yet returned to the field five minutes later, you thought finally rugby union might get the message. Last weekend when Josh Hohneck came back on the field after being knocked out during the Highlanders versus Crusaders match it was one of the more graphic examples of evidence we’ve seen that the message still hasn’t got through.

Hopefully it doesn’t take a death on the field in professional rugby or league for the penny to finally drop. We’ve experienced deaths happening on the field at club level in recent years, but as yet no professional player in Australasian rugby or league has passed away in the middle of a live televised match.

The use of an independent sideline doctor at professional levels could make an impact that would have a flow-on-effect to the grass-roots level of both codes. Currently people of all ages see their role-models coming back on the field to play after being knocked out. This naturally makes it more widely accepted for players at lower levels to push the limits and their support staff less likely to take a hard stance on the issue.

Richard Fa’aoso is one case that has the potential to end in a tragedy. People that have followed his history of head knocks would be stunned to know he was back playing at the weekend for Parramatta. Fa’aoso appears to be the extreme case of why these sports need to protect their players, rather than expect them to make sensible decisions relating to their health.

Most young men are full of bravado and in rugby and league they make their living by not taking a backward step. Fa’aoso has shown time and time again that he’ll continue to stay on the field or return to the field whenever given a chance, no matter how much damage he takes to his melon. Many other players are of a similar mentality, especially when they’re caught up in the heat of battle.

One way that attitudes to concussions could improve is through people more commonly referring to concussions as a ‘bruised brain’. In reality, that is what we are dealing with and we all know from bruises to other parts of our body that we don’t take heavy knocks to our limbs and then suddenly find the bruising magically disappears five minutes later.

Why would our brain be any different?

Eventually it’s likely that independent doctors will at least be trialed by one of the codes. It’s just as likely that this will prove to be more successful than the current system and that in many years from now we’ll look back and wonder why change took so long. They say good things take time – but it’s long overdue for rugby and league to embrace this change.

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