Symptom free: will the law strike a knockout blow on concussion in rugby?

Published 05 March 2015 By: Jack Anderson

Rugby Scrum

As the Six Nations rugby tournament approaches its half way stage, the usual media chatter on who might win go on to win the championship has been substituted by concern over a number of high profile, concussion-related injuries.

Concussive injuries sustained by Wales’ George North in both halves of the opening game against England; the return of Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton against France after a 12-week layoff due to successive head injuries; and Mike Brown’s knock in England’s home game against Italy have been the dominant images1 of Six Nations 2015.

Media comment has largely focused on whether existing medical protocols – suggesting minimum rest periods of 21 days for players – are not being fully enforced such that players are returning to the field of play within mere minutes of suffering an apparently concussive blow. More importantly, a number of sports physicians2 have argued vehemently that even if extant, pitch side concussion protocols in international rugby are adhered to strictly, they are simply not of a standard that sufficiently protects the long term welfare of rugby players.


Risk prevention in elite rugby

The primary duty of care for rugby players’ welfare lies with the sport’s world governing body, World Rugby, and its various national unions. These organisations are, rightly, sensitive to criticism on the matter of head injuries, the incidence of which rose 59 per cent in English rugby in 2013-143 compared to the previous season and thus making concussion the most common match injury for rugby players for the third straight year.

An example of that sensitivity can be seen in Ireland where, in light of what it called “disappointing and inaccurate commentary in the media by individuals with no medical expertise”, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) took the unprecedented step of issuing a press release on what it called the “medical management4 of Jonathan Sexton. The IRFU noted that Sexton’s return to play had been sanctioned by independent neurologists in France and Ireland, his club doctors, as well as the Irish and French Rugby Federation’s medical teams.

Similarly, the RFU has highlighted that when Mike Brown was knocked out, following a collision with Italy’s Andrea Masi, he was attended to promptly by 13 England support staff5 and medics. In addition, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU)6 was cleared of any wrongdoing7 by a World Rugby investigation into its the handling of George North’s injuries.

That World Rugby investigation, with input from a global expert independent Concussion Advisory Group, acknowledged that, although North should not have returned to play, WRU medics and the independent doctor acted within the “framework of information8 they had at the time and would have taken a different course of action had they had direct pitch-side visibility or access to TV replay footage of the incident. Consequently, World Rugby is now considering both whether television match official technology can be expanded to identify head injuries as they happen on the field and giving medical staff access to pitch-side video footage.9


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Jack Anderson

Jack Anderson

Jack Anderson is Professor and Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne. The sports law program at Melbourne was one of the first to be established globally in the mid-1980 and continues to expand at the Melbourne Law School, which itself is ranked in the top 10 law schools globally.

Jack has published widely in the area including monographs such as The Legality of Boxing (Routledge 2007) and Modern Sports Law (Hart 2010) and edited collections such as Landmark Cases in Sports Law (Asser 2013) and EU Sports Law (Edward Elgar 2018 with R Parrish and B Garcia). He was Editor-in-Chief of the International Sports Law Journal based at the International Sports Law Centre at the Asser Institute from 2013 to 2016. 

Jack is a former member of CAS (2016-2018).  He became a member of the inaugural International Amateur Athletics Federation’s Disciplinary Tribunal and the International Hockey Federation’s Integrity Unit in 2017.  In 2019, he was appointed to the International Tennis Federation’s Ethics Commission. He is currently chair of the Advisory Group establishing a National Sports Tribunal for Australia

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