IRB 'playing Russian roulette' with players

23:58, Jun 05 2012
Tatafu Polota-Nau
DANGEROUS GAME: Tatafu Polota-Nau was allowed to continue playing by the Waratahs despite falling over trying to stand up after taking a knock to the head.

New Zealand were lucky against Samoa in the first round of the IRB junior world championships. Don't be fooled by the 63-0 scoreline. Someone could have been seriously hurt out there.

The Baby Blacks and all the other teams have been put at risk by factions of the IRB who are either too stupid or too wilful to legislate correctly for concussion.

In a recent press release, the IRB trumpeted its new experimental concussion guidelines at the Junior World Cup as an extra layer of protection.

Under the new procedure, a player who has suffered head impact is removed from the field and then undergoes a five-minute concussion assessment.

If he passes, he is allowed to go back on to the field of play. If he suffers a second head knock, he can again be returned to action if the team medic passes him fit.

The IRB is playing Russian roulette with our kids. This is not just my view, it is also the view of Dr Barry O'Driscoll, uncle of Brian, former Ireland international and a man who advised the IRB on concussion for many years.

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He regards this new five-minute rule as a way out for medics who want to get their player back on the pitch.

The current IRB regulation states: "Players suspected of having concussion must be removed from play and must not resume play in the match. Continuing to play after sustaining a concussion may result in a more serious brain injury."

But now the IRB has brought in an experimental five-minute test.

Yet the Zurich Conference on concussion requires a 20-minute test to assess a victim adequately. Even that may not be enough as many symptoms are delayed.

My son recently collapsed half an hour after receiving a head knock. The IRB's five-minute window is a gamble with our kids' futures.

Research also shows that a doctor will favour the company who employs him or her. In recent weeks in Super Rugby, we have seen the Waratahs clear Tatafu Polota-Nau to carry on even though he had fallen over trying to stand up.

The same thing happened to the Brumbies' Michael Hooper a week later. Neither club has been sanctioned, although the Waratahs would have a hard job defending liability if Polota-Nau, who has history, suffers future long-term damage.

There are signs that rugby's duty of care to its players has started to slip now the World Cup is over. Last weekend there were four spear tackles. Three were penalised with yellow cards.

Ever since the IRB chose not to give Alain Rolland the World Cup final after he correctly sent off Sam Warburton in the semifinal, referees have been reluctant to issue red.

The week before, Motu Matu'u put two people in hospital. When he returned to the pitch this week, the Aussie commentator said: "Be scared, be very scared."

The "Hurricanes Hitman", as he has been dubbed, has had his tackles replayed to the Ride of the Valkyries. He's been called a "one-man war", "a fire in the hold" and has been glorified on the internet, the television, radio and in newspapers.

I thought that we were mature enough as a society to abhor violence. It seems we are not even mature enough to understand it. Every commentator I have heard or read has described Matu'u's tackles as legal or legit and every one of them is wrong.

The IRB does a few daft things, but its laws on the tackle are very good.

Law 10 (e) states: "A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously." That in itself is enough. The fact that Matu'u's tackle technique put two people in hospital within two minutes might suggest that it is dangerous.

The law further states (and so-called rugby experts ignore this time and again): "A player must not tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders."

Now how do you imagine Lachlan Mitchell ended up in hospital with neck damage and concussion? Maybe he was hit with an invisible flour bomb. Either that or Matu'u's shoulder drove on up into his neck and chin because of his tackle technique.

Matu'u's tackle was illegal and he should have been removed from the pitch. And so should all the kids who suffer head knocks at the Junior World Cup because of illegal tackles such as Matu'u's. And they should stay off the pitch.

O'Driscoll explained to me that bio-chemical changes after a head knock slow down glucose metabolism which reduces cognitive function. Adolescents are particularly at risk and often develop later symptoms. Some don't show up for 24 hours and exercise can exacerbate the damage.

Zurich stresses time and time again that players should be removed from the pitch and not return.

And yet now the IRB has a five-minute rule at a World Cup for adolescents. Heaven help it.

Former Scotland international John Beattie has just donated his brain to future research. Many other rugby players are doing the same.

I urge any concussion-deniers who still think that Barry O'Driscoll's nephew wasn't spear-tackled and that Lachlan Mitchell was just an accidental victim in rugby's school of hard knocks to view: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2012/05/10/3499950.htm

Steve Devine is a very sad lesson that we are taking far too long to learn.

The Dominion Post