Positive steps forward in rugby’s battle against concussion?

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Positive steps forward in rugby’s battle against concussion?
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Positive steps forward in rugby’s battle against concussion?

Updated 11.45

IT WAS A relief to hear yesterday that Brian O’Driscoll will not be considered for Leinster selection this weekend, having suffered a concussion against the All Blacks.

His involvement was never likely but even still, it is reassuring to see his head injury being treated seriously. The legendary centre has been through this situation several times before, making it all the more important that his recovery is managed carefully.

At 34, O’Driscoll is close to the end of his career and has already put his body through more than most. Shoulder injuries, hamstring tears, concussions; O’Driscoll has had them all more than once. It is the last part of that list that cause the most concern though.

The IRB’s belief is that their Pitch Side Concussion Assessment (PSCA) is remedying the ongoing problem of players remaining on the field of play even after concussion. The five minute procedure involves a cognitive assessment, balance test and an examination of the player for any symptoms of concussion.

The PSCA protocol has come under criticism from many quarters for being an inaccurate method of testing players’ head injuries, particularly in the wake of George Smith being allowed to return to the pitch for Australia against the Lions last summer after suffering a serious concussion.

The Six Nations remains among the tournaments who have not yet adopted the PSCA, but the IRB is continuing to pressure them into doing so. For all the criticism, the protocols prevented O’Driscoll from returning to the pitch against the All Blacks and for that reason deserve some applause.

O’Driscoll was involved in an interesting Twitter exchange with former England hooker Brian Moore on Tuesday, where he agreed that Ireland needed to focus on not having any more one-off performances on the pitch. Of more importance though was his admission that he would have wanted to return to the pitch, if he had not been denied the chance.

It’s hardly a surprising statement from the Ireland centre, but it stresses again how vigilant the doctors performing the PSCA must be. Any sign at all of a possible concussion and the player has to be removed. There can be no more leniency in the doctors’ decisions.

The IRB highlighted this month that they have been using video footage of games under their jurisdiction to assess whether or not concussions are being missed. Why not expand this approach to being included as part of the five minute PSCA?

Clearly George Smith was sharp enough to pass the tests after his concussion, but if the doctor had had access to immediate footage of the incident, there would have been no doubt whatsoever that the flanker would have been removed from the field of play.

Interestingly, an IRFU source confirmed that they have started to use video analysis during all senior international games to specifically assist the pitch medics in identifying and assessing potential concussions. It’s a wonderfully positive and intelligent step forward in helping to solve the concussion problem in rugby, and plaudits must go to the IRFU.

The IRB itself has stated that the PSCA is not required when a diagnosis is obvious. Rugby’s world governing body also stresses that any player who has suffered a loss of consciousness or a suspected loss of consciousness should be immediately taken off the pitch and not allowed to return, without any test taking place.

O’Driscoll’s example last weekend suggested that a more strict view on concussion is being taken at the highest level. That is a positive step, as this whole issue is largely about what happens underneath the professional arena.

Amateur clubs and players everywhere in the world take their cues from what is happening in the pro. game, and the increased diligence surrounding concussion needs to continue.

- Originally published Thursday, 7.30 am.

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