The dangers of concussion

Head injuries continue to plague sport, particularly the high contact sports of rugby, football, rugby league, boxing and, in the United States, NFL, where the future of the code hinges on the league fixing its concussion protocols.

Recent games of NFL have left spectators in a state of shock as players stagger around the field after apparently passing a concussion test.

The increased use of the head in football is worrying the British. Gone are the days of the water-soaked leather ball which was put down as the reason so many early players suffered brain damage in later life.

Instead, the new lighter balls travel faster. The game is getting faster all the time and more crosses are being made and more headers are necessary. The greater speed also means there is a higher risk of players taking accidental bangs to the head.

In Otago, club and school rugby players across the region are to trial programmes aimed at reducing concussion injuries this coming season as New Zealand Rugby tests new techniques to tackle head injuries.

The issue has been highlighted in rugby, with All Blacks Ben Smith, Dane Coles and Beauden Barrett among the high-profile players to take time out of the game due to concussion.

NZR medical director Ian Murphy says the University of Otago and the Otago Rugby Football Union are going to be heavily involved in the upcoming season.

The NZR intends refining its existing Rugby Smart programme with a new range of online modules for coaches and referees, as well as workshops.

The need to do something about concussion is even more pressing, as an Otago Daily Times investigation found many young rugby players in the region are becoming part of a production line to greater honours. First XV players are being targeted by scouts and coaches to fill places in Mitre 10 Cup teams after being seen in the televised First XV competitions.

Otago Boys’ High School First XV coach Ryan Martin has been guiding the side for seven years, noticing scouting and recruitment becoming more intense.

First XV rugby is now definitely the breeding ground for provincial unions’ academies, he says.

The phenomenon of rushing young players into top-level rugby or rugby league is not new in New Zealand. Jonah Lomu, Joe Rokocoko, Zac Guilford and Rieko Ioane were all young when they pulled on the black jersey.

Southland-born Jeff Wilson made his All Black debut the day before he turned 20.  And there will not be a rugby lover alive in New Zealand who has not heard of the great George Nepia, who also made his All Black debut as a teenager, becoming an integral part of "The Invincibles".

One of the differences between then and now is the size of players. Lomu was an exceptional athlete, a giant on the wing who would not have been out of place on the side of the scrum. His wing opponents were mainly smaller, allowing him to literally run over most of them.

Players in First XVs around the country are now the size of Lomu and Ioane while still at school. Their bodies are becoming larger but their brains are still at a delicate stage of development. It is unclear how many young players pull out of rugby because of head or other debilitating injuries, but the best guess is a lot.

The NZR needs to develop head injury prevention programmes which players enjoy. This may include players working with a ball in their hands and exercises in which coaches can see a reduction in injuries and improved performance.

It is not difficult to understand why players want to keep playing, even to the extent of hiding a head injury, and it will take vigilance from the NZR to ensure players are protected.

Footballers in the US underwent tests which showed brain damage to those who were constant headers of the ball. Even wearing helmets, NFL players suffer horrendous brain injuries which are later linked to violent behaviour in their personal life.

Most rugby players do not wear head protection, forwards preferring tape to protect their ears rather than wider strapping. Little protection is provided either way.

This coming season will hopefully provide a safer environment for rugby players at all levels in Otago.


Steve might stop calling concussion 'head knocks'. That'd be helpful.