Understanding the brain game
Discusses the burning issue of concussion with Macclesfield head coach Giles Heagerty
EVER since images of George North lying flat out on the Millennium Stadium turf after a clash with Richard Hibbard sent shockwaves through the rugby world, concussion has been a hot topic in the game.
It’s a subject that rugby is growing to understand, helped along the way by the experiences of other sports such as American Football, and it is now common knowledge that this brain injury is a serious threat to the long term welfare of a player.
The paying public will see head collisions and knock-outs on a regular basis as millions across the globe witness rugby
‘The hits are getting bigger as the players are getting faster and stronger. Concussion is not something we can mess around with’
live at grounds and broadcast on the television – but is it further down our game we need to worry about?
Macclesfield Rugby Club play in National League One, a fierce division with a high level of contact, so players are certainly in the firing line.
Giles Heagerty, head coach at Macclesfield, firmly believes the topic needs to be taken seriously by players and staff of clubs at all levels.
“It shouldn’t make a difference what level you’re playing at, concussion is concussion. The hits are getting bigger as the players are getting faster and stronger. Concussion is not something we can mess around with.
“As well as working as head coach at Macclesfield I’m also a school teacher and it’s something we take very seriously at school because you have to, you’ve only got one brain and it doesn’t recover like a torn hamstring.”
Heagerty feels players are now starting to realise they can’t take risks, whereas in years gone by player collisions would have been shrugged off as a bump on the head or even ridiculed for showing signs of hurt in this physical game.
The Blues head coach insists the realisation from the top players was vitally important at all levels as they are role models “not only to the kids but to the adults that continue to play our sport.”
The highest profile case of a player taking a step back would be England and Harlequins star Mike Brown who, after suffering concussion for England, missed the England v Ireland fixture but returned two weeks later to face France, only to pull himself out of his following game for Harlequins as they played London rivals Saracens in front of 83,000 at Wembley.
Brown sent out a strong message to the rugby community after doing so.
“After the France game I had a headache and could have easily thought: ‘It’s Sarries, it’s Wembley and I’ll give it a go’ but we’re so clued up on concussion now that I don’t think anyone would risk it”.
“If I can do it – pulling out of England-Ireland, the biggest game of the Six Nations at that point – then I think anyone can do it, and should do it”.
It has been well documented that concussion in rugby is on the rise but most would argue this is due to the increased understanding of the injury. Reported concussions in rugby in the 2013/14 season had risen 59 per cent from the season before.
The RFU now have strict guidelines surrounding concussion incidents and insist players must be given the green light by a doctor before they can step foot back onto a field.
Mike Carolan is head of performance at Macc and also an injury rehab specialist and he believes it is obvious why we don’t have clear understanding in sport as to the dangers of concussion.
“We have movement specialists, corrective exercise specialists, strength and conditioning specialists and personal trainers and they all work towards building a more durable physique. Yet, when we talk about concussion, a brain injury is a significant issue in the fact that we’re still in a very early phase in the management of the injury.”
Carolan admitted that judging the injury is made even tougher at The Blues’ level of the game in comparison to the professional game due to the lack of technology available.
Players at the highest level tend to have a GPS monitor sewn into their playing jersey and this tracks a number of things including G force. Players at the top level, when colliding, have been measured at suffering the same amount of G force as a car crash at around 80mph and an average of a 35-40 mph collision. So are these injuries really a shock?
A recent case for Carolan and The Blues was that of flanker Phil Williams, who suffered a head injury away at Yorkshire side Wharfedale and was judged fit enough, after going through protocol, to return to play the following weekend. At the time of his collision Williams was conscious but unresponsive to pain or verbal cues.
Once the medical team had removed him from the pitch safely, he was checked by the club doctor and with his go ahead, they began procedures for recovery.
Williams spoke of his concern of the possible effects later on in life for himself and fellow rugby players.
“Because it is a relative unknown it is better to stay on the side of caution as we still don’t know what the full effects are later on down the line. So it is key for us to make sure we get everything right in that time following the knock to make sure we’ve got everything right before we play again.”
Williams was determined to be fit to play the next weekend as he was heading into his final two games as a Blues player, but was immediately told that if he showed any midweek signs of concussion, he would be sat down from duty.
Concussion is certainly an issue that needs dealing with, as player welfare is important at all levels of the game.
Carolan hopes that with the correct information, the rugby community can strive to improve and deal with concussion in a safer manner.
“The RFU are really pushing this issue out to everyone in rugby and making people realise how important it is to understand this issue.
“The more education we can get out there, the less serious incidents we will get.
“It’s about 30 fit and healthy players out there performing on the pitch, being as safe as possible so we’re not having people dropping left and right.”
●● Macclesfield RUFC coach Giles Heagerty