The Knock-on Effect: Aussie league slow to take big hits seriously

By Dana Johannsen, Dylan Cleaver

Tell us your story: If you have had problems with concussions received playing sport contact us at sportrac@nzherald.co.nz.

Rabbitohs player Todd Polglase lies unconscious during 2005 match against the Eels. Players must now undergo specific cognitive tests before playing on. Photo / Getty Images
Rabbitohs player Todd Polglase lies unconscious during 2005 match against the Eels. Players must now undergo specific cognitive tests before playing on. Photo / Getty Images

While critics have lamented the response of rugby administrators to the long-term dangers of concussion, on the surface they are well ahead of league in mitigating the risks for their players.

The first weekend of the NRL finals only emphasised that point.

The sight of Melbourne Storm back-rower Ryan Hoffman staggering about on the field after a head knock inside the opening few minutes of Saturday night's qualifying semifinal against the Rabbitohs was a poor advertisement for a sport trying to improve its dubious player-welfare record.

Referees Shayne Hayne and Jason Robinson appeared to recognise something was wrong with Hoffman as he tried to stumble his way back in to the defensive line, yet they did not stop play. Storm coach Craig Bellamy admitted he found the incident "scary" to watch, but did not replace his player.

The Hoffman incident is just the latest in a string of head injury controversies for the competition, but as the NRL battles to protect its image, Dain Guttenbeil, New Zealand Rugby League's general manager of community development, believes his organisation sets a strong example.

"Concussion is nothing new to us and we are very aware of the dangers and that has been reflected in how proactive we've been," Guttenbeil says.

"We're probably the first sport to have actively engaged in starting to deal with concussions.

"That began back in the mid-90s, where the ACC developed an injury prevention panel with NZRL to look specifically at concussion."

At the same time, the NZRL banned the shoulder charge, leading to a marked decline in injury statistics.

But although the shoulder charge has been banned in New Zealand competitions since 1996, it is still very much a part of the NRL.

Guttenbeil said administrators in Australia have been reluctant to follow suit because they have other priorities.

"The NRL is an entertainment package isn't it? People love seeing those big hits. And when they've just signed a billion-dollar contract, I guess they're not in a hurry to outlaw it."

The problem the NZRL have is the images of the ferocious hits and reckless tackles presented in the game's showpiece competition are at odds with the culture they are trying to create in their domestic game.

"The next generation of kids, they all see [the big hits] on the TV and they all want to be Sonny Bill Williams - I guarantee when he is back in league he'll rediscover his shoulder charge skills - so we have to keep re-educating our communities that that's what is on TV, but it's not our game here."

Australian league administrators are slowly waking up to the concerns over the long-term health effects of multiple concussions.

The growing body of research in the US, which has found a link between repeated head knocks and long-term neurological disorders in NFL players, has created a legal firestorm for the game's administrators.

In the States, more than 2000 former players are suing the NFL, claiming that the dangers of the sport were hidden from them.

Perhaps aware of the potential legal ramifications if they fail to act, the NRL moved to impose stricter concussion guidelines this season.

In what was hailed as a landmark step for the competition, official guidelines on head-trauma incidents were included in the game's rules.

Clubs can be investigated and sanctions imposed if they do not adhere to the guidelines, which require players who have suffered a head knock to undergo specific cognitive tests before playing on.

Despite the weekend's example, NRL chief medical officer Ron Muratore believes the message on the seriousness of head knocks is getting through.

Now the push is on to ban the shoulder charge following a spate of head injuries this season from the spectacular but controversial tackling technique.

The Australian Rugby League is reviewing the legality of the tackle, setting up a committee of medical experts to investigate the impact shoulder charges can have on a player's neck, head and brain.

As part of the review, the ARL have invited Guttenbeil to discuss the effect it has had in reducing injuries in New Zealand competitions.

"It's a good sign," he says. "In the past they wouldn't listen to us at all, but they're actively asking for our input."

It seems players here don't always listen either.

One Aucklander who played league at club level, who wanted only to be known as Scott (to protect his club), gave up league this season because of concerns over his health after he began experiencing debilitating tremors and migraines.

The reserve-grader had been "knocked out cold" five times and had suffered "countless" concussions.

Yet for most of these events he did not get medical clearance before returning to play, nor did the club monitor his health.

Scott said his club only imposed the three-week stand-down rule if a player had been knocked out, despite NZRL guidelines emphasising that players do not need to lose consciousness to be concussed.

As the concussions mounted, so too did the negative health effects.

On top of the migraines, which he says can level him for days, Scott began suffering from tremors.

The 27-year-old works in cardiology and says he made the decision to give up league for the sake of his career.

"I didn't want the impacts affecting my job. League doesn't pay the bills - work does," he says.

"I just thought the longer I keep playing, the more damage I'm going to do.

"A lot of my teammates didn't understand my situation; they wanted me to keep playing."

Guttenbeil admits breaking the cultural belief among players and coaches that a player was "a wuss" if they did not insist on playing on after suffering concussion is the biggest challenge for administrators.

League is viewed as a hard man's game and that means being able to take the hits as well as dishing them out.

"It's a challenge for malehood isn't it? It's a societal thing. We're told that to be a man you get knocked down and you get up and keep on running. If your leg is broken you bandage it up, you'll be right," he says.

"Every coach, trainer and manager around the country is educated about their obligations to their players, and in the most part they are doing a good job of it."

As for Bellamy and those guardians of the billion-dollar television industry across the Tasman, it appears they have some work to do.

- NZ Herald

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