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'I guess it's what I mean by a battle we will never ultimately win'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin has acknowledged that concussion is a battle that rugby will never ultimately win but he believes that his organisation is going the right way about convincing people that they have got a game that is still safe to play at all levels. The head of the global rugby body was speaking after it was revealed that a new suite of measures set for introduction from July 1 will result in the vast majority of players not returning to play within twelve days after a confirmed concussion.

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If the initiative is a success, it will be a big step forward for a sport that continues to attract negative headlines with concussed players managing to get back on the field of play for their team’s next match seven days later. Concussion has remained the elephant in the room regarding the safety of rugby and its players, with numerous incidents still reflecting poorly on it.

Governing bodies such as World Rugby are now subject to lawsuits due to ex-players suffering poor brain health and these legal matters were not up for discussion when Gilpin and co announced the concussion protocol changes that will come into force on July 1.

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What happens inside the brain during a concussion | Beyond 80 Knocked
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What happens inside the brain during a concussion | Beyond 80 Knocked

What he did concede, however, was that concussion was a battle that rugby had to win substantively otherwise things would be a bit tricky. “In collision-based sports, there are always going to be head impacts,” he said. “What we are trying to do is reduce it by teaching better tackle technique and ultimately that is a huge part of this whole (initiative) from every part of the game, from mini rugby through to the international game.

“Improving tackle technique is what will help us improve in this space but there are always going to be head impacts and there are always going to be concussions in rugby.

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“We are never going to eradicate that with the nature of the sport we have. I guess it is what I mean by a battle we will never ultimately win but we want to win it enough so that people are comfortable that we have got a game that is safe to play at all levels of the game and that the sport is doing its best to protect and look after players’ safety and welfare. We are making what we think are advancements in that all the time.”

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It will take time to fully gauge the impact of these latest changes regarding concussion protocol but looking ahead into the future, what outlook for rugby does Gilpin envisage in ten years’ time, by which stage three further men’s World Cup finals will have been played (France 2023, Australia 2027 and USA 2031)?

“We have got to say there are less occurrences of concussion in rugby and that we better understand the incidents that cause them and how they happen and we can continue to evolve the game to reduce those impacts but where they do occur – and this is really the important part of what we are announcing now – that where they do occur there is the very best care for players in terms of how they return to the field of play, that looks after their health and that is why the individualised approach is so important to us because it is supported by that expert opinion.”

These replies came from Gilpin, who took charge at World Rugby in March 2021 after Brett Gosper moved on to NFL, when the concussion briefing was thrown open to questions from the floor. Earlier, during his opening statement, he outlined: “Almost a year ago we launched a renewed commitment to cement rugby as the most progressive sport in the world on the safety and welfare of our players.

“That has been driven by a six-point action plan very much supported by our member unions, by players, by independent experts as we set about to implement evidence-based initiatives to protect and support players at all levels and all ages and that plan has already led to a lot of meaningful advancements in player welfare from prevention to remedies.

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“Today marks the next chapter in the player welfare and safety journey: we are announcing an evolution of the graduated return-to-play protocols in the elite professional game. The approach we are rolling out has been guided by extensive rugby-specific research and independent expert opinion.

“Importantly it has the support of the playing, coaching and medical communities throughout the game, all of whom will be central to delivering the success of this evolved RTP approach. To put it simply, the evolved approach places a greater emphasis on individualised rehabilitation based on how each player has symptoms show up and their concussion history. As a result, the vast majority of players will not return within twelve days of a confirmed concussion.”

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