Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: More balance needed in rugby's concussion conversation

Ben Smith of the Highlanders receives medical attention after a clash for high ball with Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs. Photo/Getty Images
Ben Smith of the Highlanders receives medical attention after a clash for high ball with Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs. Photo/Getty Images

As rugby turns over every stone and probes into every facet of the game to learn more about the possible longer-term effects of brain injuries, there's a danger that it is starting to look anti personal choice.

There's a bigger danger that, as a sport, rugby could tear itself apart trying to amend its rules and protocols to diminish the occurrence of one specific form of injury.

There's a balance that needs to be struck between making the game less reckless and yet not removing its physical essence. There is a balance to be struck in terms of promoting the proven, holistic benefits of the sport against not terrifying everyone, particularly parents, with endless alarming statistics.

Essentially, what rugby needs is for the narrative to swing back a touch to a less extreme place. For years, the game wrongly celebrated and portrayed head knocks and associated concussions as all part of the sport's macho culture.

Real men, so the vibe went, would and should play through anything.

Of course, it was all wrong and explains why, in the last five years or so, the pendulum has been swinging the other way. Rugby's executives have been commendably proactive in building globally adopted on-field protocol around suspected concussion.

It is now an accepted part of the game eveywhere that any player who appears to have taken a knock to the head will be sent to the medics for testing and, just as importantly, the testing is consistent and genuine in the sense that no-one - be it players or coaches - tries to con the system.

Those who fail, don't come back.

This system has been adopted, because there is universal evidence that there are significant health dangers if an individual plays with a concussion. It would be reckless to have ignored the science, just as it would be reckless to ignore the research in regard to the dangers that are inherent in high tackling.

A recent study by World Rugby showed that the tackle is the most likely collision point in the game to induce a head injury, and if the tackler is high and upright, the chances of that particular impact resulting in a head injury increase by 40 per cent.

So again, it would be reckless for World Rugby to not impose tough sanctions on those who tackle high. Through a combination of punishment and education, World Rugby hopes players will refine their technique and over the next few years, the instances of high tackles will greatly reduce.

So far, so good, but on the horizon are other headline-grabbing ideas that are hard to fathom. A credible lobby of medics in the UK are pushing for tackling to be outlawed in schools rugby - a notion that would remove rugby as a sport of any value or interest to its current playing base.

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It's a hard argument to understand, with the developed world in the midst of a child obesity epidemic, and parents everywhere lamenting the difficulties they face in forcing kids off the coach and away from their devices.

It's actually plain bonkers what is being proposed in the UK and will only add a level of ill-founded hysteria that rugby is unjustifiably dangerous when, statistically, stepping out of the shower without a mat down represents greater risk.

Just as hard to understand is the announcement overnight that The Rugby Health Project, led by AUT University's Professor Patria Hume, which discovered higher rates of cognitive impairment in retired rugby players who suffered concussion during their careers, will be extended to the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Let's just pre-judge the findings and conclude that the new research will confirm the old - that suffering concussion is not good for anyone's long-term health. The research, when it's finished, will inevitably enforce the picture of rugby as a sport carrying extreme dangers.

But that picture is starting to feel unbalanced. There are indisputable long-term risks, whether the science fully supports it or not, to suffering multiple concussions.

But what are the chances of suffering multiple concussions by playing rugby and should the potential risk of that be given such media prominence ahead of all the other positive health benefits the sport brings?

People need to make informed choice about what sports to play and have the risks fairly presented.

The pendulum needs to swing back before anyone can say both sides of the concussion story are being fairly told.

- NZ Herald

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