Concussion – where do we stand?

Saturday nights Pro12 semi final at the RDS restored my faith in the game of rugby union.

As Brian O’Driscoll lay slumped in a heap in the middle of the pitch after smashing his head in a tackle, I questioned whether the Leinster medical staff would do the right thing.

Would the great centre stagger to his feet and insist on playing on for the rest of the second half, as he has done on numerous previous occasions, or would the experts intervene and demand that he come off for treatment?

Thankfully common sense prevailed and in spite of his protests, O’Driscoll was helped off the field of play.  There was little doubt about the seriousness of what had happened; the Ireland centre took a heavy blow to the head in the act of making a tackle and he appeared to be concussed. His head came in direct contact with an opposition players knee and in the sixty seconds that followed, O’Driscoll was unable to move.

Two more concussion related incidents took place before the final whistle at the RDS and thankfully, in both cases, the players involved were hauled off.  Watching from the sidelines it was the minimum I expected, but after several questionable decisions on concussion related injuries this season, it was a relief that the proper protocols were adhered to.

Just two weeks ago, in the Top 14 in France, I despaired for the future of the game.

Toulouse and France centre Florian Fritz was on the end of a crunching blow in the league play off match against Racing Metro.  He was was quite clearly suffering from concussion.  As he fought with his own medical staff and staggered off the pitch to the dressing room, it was immediately apparent that he should play no further part in the match.

Incredibly, some ten minutes later, Fritz came back onto the pitch.

Subsequent television footage emerged showing Toulouse head coach Guy Noves encouraging his player out of the medical treatment room and back to rejoin his team mates.  It was difficult to watch and deeply upsetting.

After dragging its heals for far too long on the issue of player concussion, the IRB is finally beginning to do something about it.  Recent protocols for player treatment and a concussion bin have gone some way towards addressing the issue but the governing body needs to go further.

As it stands at the moment, team doctors have the final say on whether or not a player is fit to continue playing following a suspected concussion.  This makes little sense.

A team doctor is employed by a club and therefore cannot be impartial.  The game needs an independent, medically qualified assessor to determine if a player is fit to continue playing.  The current system places far too much pressure on team doctors to make a decision in the clubs best interest and not in the interests of the injured player.

As for Noves, he ought to know better.  A long time club coach at one of the most successful sides in the northern hemisphere, his actions in the aftermath of Fritz being taken off merits further investigation.  All teams play to win but sport, professional and amateur, cannot come before player welfare.

Which makes the events at the Madeira Islands Open last week even more difficult to fathom.

Caddy Iain McGregor suffered a heart attack in the closing stages of the second round and lost his life on the course.  Inexplicably, the tournament organisers allowed play to continue.  Alastair Forsyth, for whom McGregor was caddying, played on for the rest of his round.  The entire thing was an absolute disgrace.

The European Tour has since issued an apology but it beggars belief that a golf tournament was allowed to continue after a man lost his life on the course.

What sort of values are we trying to teach here? That human life does not matter as long as the commercial interests of tournament organisers and sponsors are well served?

I can think of no other sport where an event would be allowed to continue in such tragic circumstances.  What must McGregor’s family and friends think? What if it was a player that died on the course?

Ireland is a country that adores its sport. Such a passionate affair is possible only because of the men and women that sacrifice thousands of hours to excel at the top level.  But when sport transcends common decency and fails to protect the very people that make it possible, it ceases to become entertainment. The health and safety of players and participants must supersede all other objectives. If it does not, we are left with nothing but barbarity.