Neil Sorensen is the general manager of professional rugby at the NZRU. As a lad Sorensen didn't sit his school exams because he had suffered so many concussions. He was falling asleep just watching his mates play rugby. He couldn't focus on anything for long. In short Sorensen was a head case.
OPINION: "Sos" was lucky. He got better and continued to play rugby. He remembers a game in the early '80s when Wellington achieved a rare victory against Auckland at Eden Park.
"I got a funny knock on the head. I felt fine. I knew the score. I could speak coherently. But when I tried to get up and run, my legs wouldn't work."
That night Sorensen got chatting to Nicky Allen over a drink. A couple of years later former All Black Allen was dead. He was just 26 years of age. He got a bang to the head playing in Australia and never recovered.
Sorensen remembers his generation of players saying, "Shit a brick, Nicky Allen died."
Suddenly they were no longer immortal. It could have been any of them. Sorensen was a half back and was always getting munched. He could have ended up like Allen. He could have ended up like Steve Devine, exhausted all the time, fragmented by constant migraines.
Even now Sorensen feels "sick to the stomach" to see a player go back on to the field after a head knock. He repeats the phrase. "Sick to the stomach."
And suddenly after five years of campaigning, of being bullied, ridiculed and sometimes supported following a 2009 column in England's Telegraph headlined "Why I don't want my son to play rugby", I can see light at the end of the tunnel. The NZRU has the people to lead the world in best practice. They can knock some sense back into people's heads.
Sorensen cares, he genuinely cares. Last year he went on tour with the under-20s and observed a young player going through the latest concussion assessment. But always, says Sorensen, "We need to do more."
He is horrified that the Auckland University research project comparing cognitive function is still short of the necessary numbers of volunteers. It was due to be completed in November last year, but not enough former rugby players have come forward to be tested.
Sorensen says, "It's embarrassing we can't get 170 players. Maybe we have to offer incentives. Research can be a woolly subject. Sometimes you can spend 50k on woolly results. But we have to commit. Looking ahead, maybe it should be compulsory. If you play for New Zealand, we expect future access to information.
"There is more rugby played off the field than on it. I am even more concerned about contact sessions in training. Professional players are doing five and a half hours of physical practise a week. What is happening off camera? We need to educate our kids. They need to have the confidence to say, ‘I've taken a knock. Give me some time'."
Talk to Sorensen. Talk to Ken Quarrie, the NZRU's statistical genius. Talk to Dr Ian Murphy. Education is key.
Many people were moved by the tragic story of the young Northern Irishman Ben Robinson. But there were so many failings in his death. The coach did not administer a proper test. The referee rolled his eyes at "prima donnas and drama queens". And then society, from the school to the Ulster union, to some at the hospital tried to cover up.
The International Rugby Board has to take some responsibility. Dr Martin Raftery, who leads the IRB concussion team, writes, "The public debate regarding the link between CTE and head injuries in sport is emotive as well as distracting."
No, it is not. It has prompted the IRB into some action, but even now they are dragging their feet. The tragedy of Ben Robinson happened in part because the IRB has not done enough to educate schools and clubs, referees, parents and coaches. You have to go looking for information on their website and even then it is hard to find.
The IRB's three wise men, doctors Raftery, Kemp and Patricios, who oversee concussion protocols, are all insiders. They all come from inside rugby and sports medicine. They do not encourage open debate. Dr Barry O'Driscoll resigned from the IRB in protest at the current practice. Why is there not a neutral neuropathologist heading the IRB team?
Sport is slow to come around, punch drunk on its own history. The NFL is still a scandal. Last weekend four San Diego Chargers suffered concussions against Denver. The San Diego centre played despite being knocked out a week earlier, a concussion that was initially covered up. "This isn't my first rodeo," he said.
Key receiver Wes Welker, who was concussed in November and December, was pushed on to the pitch in a bigger helmet and with a new mouthguard. Welker dropped two catches he would never have put down five years ago. How will he be in 10 years? Players need educating. They need help.
While the IRB waits for "conclusive evidence", the NZRU wants to push ahead. Sorensen, Quarrie and Murphy are discussing the need for better education, because right now the message is not getting across.
Sorensen says "My 18-year-old son looks up to Kieran Read, not Neil Sorensen."
So let's get Read out there. Let's get Ma'a Nonu out there. Let's think up some short pithy slogans.
"Concussion, no discussion, tough nuts walk off."
"Don't knock your team out. Warriors walk away."
"Head for the shed. Concussion can kill. Hard men walk off."
Posters. Visits by All Blacks into schools and clubs. Bring Sky on board. Put together some footage of head knocks and players trying to stagger on. Current All Blacks talking to camera. Let's raise awareness. Let's make it cool for warriors to say, "My head's not right, I'm hurting the team, I'm hurting me and I'm hurting my family."
The NZRU has the men to make it happen.
- Sunday Star Times
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