Un­der­stand­ing the brain game

Dis­cusses the burning is­sue of con­cus­sion with Macclesfield head coach Giles Hea­gerty

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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.”

Do­minic Sal­ter

●● Macclesfield RUFC coach Giles Hea­gerty

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