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'It was incredible, it proves that the system is still flawed'

By Stefan Frost
Referee Aurelie Groizeleau (FedRugby via Getty)

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Kyran Bracken thinks it’s high time rugby got its house in order. The former England scrum half believes concussions are not being dealt with properly and his frustrations were only compounded last weekend when head injuries were mishandled in two different England international fixtures.

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Italy was the setting for both incidents, the first involving England winger Jack Nowell at the Stadio Olimpico. After getting hit on the head in a tackle, Nowell was not immediately removed from the field for a HIA assessment. Instead, the referee rushed the initial medical examination which meant that Nowell remained on the turf. Minutes later the Exeter talisman was called in for an overdue assessment and subsequently failed his test, highlighting a huge oversight by the officials.

The other incident was not as widely televised but still left much to be desired. The England team in action this time were the U-20s and it was winger Deago Bailey who suffered the injury, landing on his head after being taken out in mid-air. He looked to be in serious pain after the topple and so independent doctors instructed the referee to send Bailey in for a HIA. The referee correctly adhered to the demands but the decision angered the English medical staff who disputed the call.

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Since retiring from rugby, Bracken has joined Progressive Rugby, a lobbying group demanding better protection for players at all levels of the game. It comes as no surprise then that both events last weekend left Bracken incensed.

“It was incredible, it proves that the system is still flawed,” Bracken told RugbyPass. “These were two different situations but both were very dangerous. The U-20s incident worries me because independent doctors were there. The referee should be applauded for how she dealt with it but the reaction from England’s doctors was dangerous.

“What happened shouldn’t be called a concussion, it was a brain injury. The problem is the doctors were in combat mode, game mode. Any doctor I speak to says they would never let a player stay on with a head injury but it’s very different when you’re trying to win a game.

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“The pressure on medics and coaches to have the best players on the pitch is huge. Doctors employed by clubs know that the most important players in the side need to stay fit. That’s why we need the independent doctors. They don’t have skin in the game.”

Unfortunately, medical experts were not the only characters at fault for the mistakes made last weekend. Referees were too.

“Nowell’s brain injury was bad in a different sense,” Bracken said. “The game was restarted and the referee let the player stay of the pitch. I sympathise with the referee in the sense that it took far too long to get on with the decision but he got the call wrong. He should have forced the player off regardless, straight away.

Jack Nowell
Jack Nowell /PA
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“We don’t want to delay the game but if the independent doctors aren’t happy, then a player needs to come off. If he’s alright and he passes his HIA, then he comes back on.”

Even though Nowell remained on the field for a short period of time after sustaining his head injury, he still could have suffered serious physical repercussions. To push this point, Bracken draws comparison with the case of Ben Robinson, a schoolboy rugby player who received multiple blows to the head in 2011. He stayed on the field and subsequently died as a result of these physical ailments.

Luckily Nowell did not stay on the pitch long, but the oversight to even keep him on for a short while shows that rugby still has much to learn. And this does not just affect the professional game, but the amateur arena as well.

England RWC departure
Paul Grayson (right) with his bags packed for World Cup 2003 along with Dan Luger, Kyran Bracken, Julian White and Stuart Abbott (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

“How does a coach in the eighth division treat a head injury,” questions Bracken. “I coach at club rugby level and have seen so many instances where a player isn’t right and just carries on.”

That is why Bracken wants law setters to introduce the blue card system. It would give referees the power to remove players from the field which they felt were suffering head injuries. The change which Bracken and his compatriots at Progressive Rugby want to implement does not stop there.

Further suggestions include reducing the number of substitutions available – excluding the front row – introducing a database which tracks players with hits to the head and lowering the amount of contact drills exercised in training sessions.

“I think we can do simple stuff that can make it safer,” Bracken said plainly. “It’s not difficult. We’re trying to point out the anomalies.”

One of the big talking points around this subject at the moment is the class action lawsuit being raised by former league and union players against World Rugby and the RFU for gross negligence. Although Bracken suffered head injuries during his career, he has abstained from joining the suit, believing that the legal claims will delay the implementation of positive change in rugby.

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“World Rugby are notoriously slow at decision making and will not want to change the laws too much,” he said. “And can they really change everything without admitting they have liability? That’s why I think the legal case is holding it back.”

Bracken wants change now, especially as it seems to be so evasive at the moment. Only last year, Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie was knocked out cold in the Premiership final but then a week later returned to the field to play for the Lions. To highlight the lunacy of this, Bracken references the boxing bout between Amir Khan and Kell Brook this morning.

“Imagine if Brook gets knocked out, is unconscious for fifty seconds and then turned around and says he was having a fight the next week. There would be an outcry. Why is it different in boxing? Well, it’s because they’ve had deaths in the ring.”

Bracken’s point is a clear one – is rugby blindly waiting for the worst to happen?

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