Concussion controversy in Six Nations

When I refer to a C-word in sport, many people assume I mean “cheat”, understandably given the prevalence of doping, fixing and tampering in many arenas of the sporting world. However, there is now a word even more taboo than cheat – “concussion”.

This year’s Six Nations has thrown the issue firmly into the spotlight, after George North hit the ground twice in Wales’ opening match against England, and not from being tackled. In the first instance he was taken off for a ten minute Head Injury Assessment, and, having passed that test, returned to the field.

The problem comes with the second. TV replays showed North hitting the floor, clearly unconscious, after clashing heads with Richard Hibbard. Following that incident, North was not taken from the field, and continued to play for the remaining 19 minutes of the game. Welsh medics declared they had not seen the incident, and that North had not displayed any symptoms of concussion when they attended to him on the pitch. They later added that had they seen the incident, they would have immediately removed him. North was subsequently stood down for the next fixture.

In the modern game, where there are countless replays shown inside the stadium, as well as an official whose job it is to watch those replays and relay important information to the referee, it seems impossible that North’s knock would have gone unnoticed by someone with the power to have the player checked by the medics. The question must be raised whether a wider problem exists, that the consequences of concussions are not being taken seriously.

If that is true, then perhaps an incident like this was needed to draw attention to the issue. In the following round of the competition, England’s Mike Brown caught Italian Andrea Masi’s shoulder, and was treated for about six minutes before being stretchered off with the utmost care and attention.

The days after the events surrounding North, saw World Rugby announce a new video review trial, which began in the weekend’s Celtic & Italian domestic competition, the Pro12. The trial doesn’t affect the role of the Television Match Official, but it aims to give them, and pitchside medical staff, further technology to draw on, in the hope a similar situation can be avoided.

It is nonetheless reassuring to see the amount of concern being expressed throughout the game for North’s wellbeing. North’s value to any side makes it paramount that his health is prioritised, and Wales have already refused the demands of his club, Northampton Saints, who hoped he would be available for their top-two contest against Bath.

Fortunately, Premiership rules state that as the Saints should have release clauses for non-English players, Wales have first call. Long-term, it is imperative for both sides that a player of such quality is treated with maximum care.

An increase in awareness about concussion is also coming to the forefront of sports on the other side of the Atlantic. The National Football League (NFL) has been wary of the problem of concussions for a few seasons now. While outside of the NFL, the dangers of college football also came to the attention of the media last year when 22-year-old Kosta Karageorge committed suicide, blaming his mental health issues on concussion.

Having recently had to agree a settlement deal with former players attempting to sue the league for a combined fee of over $750m dollars, the NFL has brought in independent medical staff on the side lines, whose job it is to watch replays, and keep an eye out for symptoms of concussion.

These staff have the power to pull players suspected of having a concussion from the field. In recent years, the league has also introduced other rules in a similar attempt to temper the more dangerous aspects of the game. These rule changes have mainly affected the tackle, in which players can no longer lead into a tackle with the crown of the head. Kick-offs have also been brought closer to mid-field to reduce the length of run-up available to kicking teams, which should lessen the impact of tackles.

Concussions represent a major problem. Total prevention will always be difficult, and most likely impossible without the eradication of the majority of contact scenarios. What is key, though, is that major steps are being taken in terms of the recognition and removal of players suspected of suffering from concussion. The hope is that in the coming years, we will be seeing fewer players having to retire as a result of one knock too many.


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May 2022
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