New Zealand braces for difficult and often ignored discussion on rugby concussion | Rugby union

It is the elephant in the room, the subject most professional players think about at some point in their careers but few discuss. What if a head knock leaves me with permanent damage?

Having had the good fortune to operate within both the All Blacks and Wallaby dressing rooms while working as part of their respective team managements, I have experienced first-hand player reactions to concussion.

Some try to laugh it off. I can remember one Wallaby, having been knocked out during a game in South Africa, cheekily dismissing the experience as “sleeping on the job”. His response struck me.

The flippancy reflected the player’s engaging and slightly mischievous personality. It was also a defence mechanism, to curtail a difficult conversation he had no interest in engaging in.

For others, head knocks are more difficult to ignore, but no easier to talk about. One All Black during my time suffered repeatedly, which led to inevitable speculation about his future.

The player, who was arguably the most fearless of his generation, and an individual I admire immensely, nonetheless became exceedingly difficult for me to deal with when it came to fulfilling his media duties around this time.

He knew full well what he was going to be asked. He also knew that he did not have an answer to what was undoubtedly going to be a difficult conversation. Best not to start it in the first place.

The twin responses ultimately underline the difficulty the game continues to face as it grapples with the issue of concussion, which has been highlighted by the move towards legal action by former players in the UK, the progress of which will be watched nervously everywhere else.

This includes in New Zealand where, with the game such an intrinsic part of the social fabric, a successful litigation in London could have far-reaching consequences at any number of levels.

Politically, it might force laws around responsibility to be revisited, especially if scientific advances on long-term injury determination continue, opening up issues of liability and compensation for all contact sports. The inevitable change in attitude towards these pursuits has the potential to impact rugby at all levels.

It would especially threaten adult and school participation rates, which would carry major economic consequences in the wider community for clubs and provincial unions in particular, each of which is already struggling financially.

That the action does not involve any current players, despite there being a few individuals on the world circuit who are frequent victims, is understandable. Few, in any profession, are prepared to publicly criticise working conditions imposed by an employer.

Not only does it threaten one’s future career, in a team game, raising the issue – even privately – also has the potential to sow the seeds of doubt in teammates. If he or she is nervous about injury, can they be trusted to play their part in a contact situation?

Hence the code of silence, even within teams themselves. Many who are forced into early retirement due to concussion find safe havens to continue their professional careers in coaching. While this is commendable – the game looking after its own – it does inadvertently buy their silence.

At least two professional coaches currently on the New Zealand Rugby payroll were either forced out of the game by concussion, or frequently troubled through their careers. Neither has been an advocate publicly on the subject.

Mental health, an equally important and troubling societal issue, has received notable long-time coverage through the tireless work of the former All Black wing, Sir John Kirwan, but his is a crusade that began in a different age.

Brave as Kirwan was in speaking out during the 1980s while still playing at the highest level, he was also still an amateur, playing the game for love, not money. Different era, different consequences.

World Rugby is trying. In-game testing, as adjudicated by an independent match doctor, has been a step in the right direction. So too, is the increased vigilance, and sanction, apportioned to illegal contact with the head.

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson perhaps highlighted the state of play best, both in his country, and across the globe, when he spoke of the game’s “awareness” of the issue but acknowledged: “We know we can be better.” The problem is how.

The game is truly in a jam, as was presciently forecast by a former All Black strength and conditioning coach who once told me: “We [the physical trainers] are building bodies now for a purpose they simply weren’t designed for and are unable to completely fulfil.”

Still the events of the last week and the courage of those involved are a step forward. Already in recent times, we have seen some difficult societal issues unlocked. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have been powerful gamechangers in bringing difficult subject matter out into the open. If the proposed legal action achieves nothing else, it has got another difficult conversation started.


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