Inside RL: Sport and science are braced for a collision

Kevin Sinfield who has had knocks to the head playing for Leeds Rhinos. PIC: Tony Johnson

Kevin Sinfield who has had knocks to the head playing for Leeds Rhinos. PIC: Tony Johnson

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EVERYONE LIKES to see a big hit. A defender flattening the ball carrier in a huge tackle is as much a part of rugby league as a spectacular try, but perhaps not for much longer.

In a collision sport like rugby league injuries are inevitable. Occasionally players get knocked out. It is worrying at the time, but usually they recover with no apparent ill-effects and are back on the field in a week or two. Sometimes they even carry on in the same game.

The RFL are well aware of the danger of blows to the head. Players suffering concussion have to take a test to ensure they have fully recovered before being allowed to play again and those rules have been tightened this year.

However, with the game getting ever faster and the athletes bigger and stronger, nobody knows what effect the pounding players get during a long top-flight career will have a few years down the line.

Knee replacements and the like are common in players who retired a decade or two ago, but more worrying is the suggestion players’ mental health could suffer due to the impact of regular blows to the head.

Ian Roberts played 13 Tests for Australia from 1990-1994. An ex-New South Wales, South Sydney, Manly and North Queensland prop, he was one of the best of his generation.

According to reports in the Australian media, Roberts – now an actor – has brain damage. A result, he says, of being knocked out up to 12 times during his playing career. Roberts agreed to undergo testing as part of a study into the effects of concussion in sport and returned “abnormal results”.

He has been suffering from depression and memory loss and told a TV interview in Australia: “I have got brain damage”, adding: “It is quite possibly the beginning of the end of contact sport, like hard contact sport.”

There are suggestions 35 out of 40 players tested by a Melbourne university show signs of brain damage. A more worrying sporting story is difficult to imagine. The medic carrying out the research, Dr Alan Pearce, believes “multiple concussions” are to blame for Roberts’ brain scan results, which are “outside the range of our healthy comparisons”.

At this stage studies are continuing and there does not yet seem to be any definite conclusion, but the dangers of concussion are something the sport both in Australia and here will have to take on board.

Already shoulder charges have been banned, because of the potential danger of such an impact. Tackling above the chest is illegal under the laws of the game, but it does happen and the results can be hugely damaging.

If it is proved that concussions, resulting from heavy tackles, are damaging to players’ long-term health, it’s difficult to see how the code can continue as it is. Roberts’ comment about the “end of hard contact sport” may sound overly dramatic, but could prove to be spot on.

If the authorities are aware of the danger and don’t act on it, that could potentially open them up to costly future legal action. Also, if you thought there was a danger of your child being brain damaged, would you let him or her take up the game?

Most sports are dangerous in some form or another and there are ways of reducing risk, such as clamping down on high shots, better medical treatment and so on. Maybe it will be possible to devise some sort of adequate head protection. All that will have to be considered, but in light of the Roberts story, it is possible to imagine that the game really could become touch and pass in the not too distant future.

Matt Parcell.

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