Rugby Concussions Increase by 59% – Bigger Hits or Greater Awareness?

As rugby takes priority on our TV screens for the next few weeks (thank you RWC2015) I thought it important to reference the fascinating programme earlier this week on BBC Panorama focussing on rugby concussion led by the brilliant John Beattie.

The one statistic that has stuck with me since is the RFU figure that concussion in rugby has increased by 59% in the last year. What an absolutely crazy statistic!

To put it into perspective, within two weeks of winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003 Jonny Wilkinson picked up the first of 14 injuries that would rule him out of the game for the best part of four years. It’s difficult to argue that the game has become dramatically more physical; almost impossible to argue that such a change has occurred within such a small window of time. So how do we explain concussion statistics rising at such incredible speed?

We have had some very high profile head injuries in 2015 already, George North and Mike Brown are two obvious examples. The Rugby World Cup 2015 is breaking all sorts of viewing records and a surge in media attention is to be expected. Throw into the mix the recent $1billion NFL Concussion Settlement and suddenly it becomes more apparent that awareness of concussion is rising exponentially.

Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not, it’s essential and in my mind ten years late in being brought to the fore. But is a 59% increase accurate? My instinct would say no it’s not, it’s more indicative of missed head traumas in previous seasons which is what makes the statistic so worrying.

This leads to my greatest concern. If I was running out for England or Wales later this evening at Twickenham and took a dangerous knock to the head, would I voluntarily leave the field of play? I am probably in the safest rugby environment possible given I have the best medical professionals and technology around me. Critically though, with new technology and TV footage the medical team can objectively diagnose head trauma and decide if I should remain on the field. Would I want to come off if I felt I could play on though? Being completely honest I think I don’t think I would, and this leads to what I feel is the absolute crux of the issue.

Rugby folklore always reveres the men or women who have played through physical pain; we think back to Richie McCaw captaining New Zealand to a World Cup four years ago on a broken foot or Martin Johnson demanding the Lions Doctor to hurry up when stitching his cheek back together so he could get back out on the field during the 1997 Lions Tour. These are the heroes, and the leaders we revere. This is why so many rugby fans proudly pronounce ‘This is not football.’

To relate this back to John Beattie’s piece on Panorama, when Beattie spoke with players from Mosely RFC and asked whether they would voluntarily leave the field the answer was a unanimous ‘No.’ Furthermore, Mosely RFC conduct tests with Birmingham University to create data which should enable a more objective capacity do detect concussion. Interestingly though, the suggestion was it was possible to provide false results to enable greater chances of staying on the field should they receive a knock in a game.

So as increasing media coverage draws attention to and highlights the increasing rate of concussions its leads us to question the capacity of new technology to provide objective diagnostics. If not, the onus of responsibility is ultimately left to the player, in which case how do we change the ‘John Wayne’ style mentality that so many of us are guilty of?

Finally, if technology is capable of making these decisions more objective, is it transferrable to all levels of the game and how do we apply it to clubs that lack the financial power at the elite end of the game?