Rugby’s head injury crisis – and why the sport is more dangerous than ever

And yet the Head Injury Assessment (HIA), which was first introduced in 2012, remains deeply flawed, despite recent claims by World Rugby that it is 90 per cent successful in detecting on-field concussions. But it should at least be credited with highlighting just how many brain injuries occur on a professional rugby field. Decisions to remove players from the field are now also widely accepted by players and fans alike, with commentators inclined to praise medics when they take a player off.

Clearly, this is a good thing. But it does not mean rugby is safer. Far from it. All the evidence shows rugby union has become significantly more dangerous over the past three decades.

In 2020/21, concussion rates in English professional rugby hit 22.2 concussions per 1,000 playing hours, the highest figure since records began.

Only in the past decade has sport’s governing bodies’ ultimate authority and control of the narrative been questioned. In recent times, organisations including the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Headway and lobby group Progressive Rugby have invested time and money into gathering evidence and providing support to players and their families.

There remain many in the sport deeply resistant to change. World Rugby’s decision in November 2022 to provide a platform at its medical symposium, attended by many of the most senior medics and administrators, to Dr Rudy Castellani, was in my opinion a grievous error of judgment.

Dr Castellani, a professor of pathology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, is a self-confessed ‘unabashed denier’ of the Boston University CTE Center’s research, which examined hundreds of brains of deceased former athletes and found evidence of CTE in the overwhelming majority of them. This research formed the central part of a class action brought against the NFL by thousands of former players and their families, alleging the league had underplayed the risks of head injuries – a lawsuit that resulted in a $765 million settlement. But at World Rugby’s conference in Amsterdam, Dr Castellani said that, among other reservations he has about the Boston research, there is insufficient evidence to describe CTE as a ‘neurodegenerative’ disease.

It is also his view that there are ‘factual inaccuracies’ in the guidance issued by the US National Institutes of Health, which acknowledges a causal link between CTE and head trauma. This is something of a ‘fringe view’, [as one commentator put it]. But as long as there are those in positions of authority making these arguments publicly, it will hinder finding a proper solution to this problem.

02

‘I’m really not sure where rugby goes from here’: Mail Sport’s writers give their verdict on the ‘outrageous’ Owen Farrell decision that has sent shockwaves through the game

Owen Farrell has been cleared to play at this autumn’s Rugby World Cup, after a disciplinary panel made a shock decision to overturn a red card that the fly-half received during England’s 19-17 win against Wales on Saturday.

The No 10 was initially shown a yellow card by referee Nika Amashukeli, for a dangerous tackle on Wales flanker Taine Basham, with the sanction subsequently being upgraded to a red card by the Foul Play Review Officer.

That decision has now been overturned by an independent disciplinary panel, after Farrell contested the red card in a video hearing on Tuesday.

The panel, represented by Richard Smith KC, came to the conclusion that there was a mitigation in the seriousness of the incident after Basham was pushed into the 31-year-old’s path by Jamie George.

The England captain’s reprieve has sparked shockwaves throughout the rugby community, with many taking to social media to question the decision.

MailSport’s writers have given their verdict on the ruling that has sent shockwaves through the game on the eve of the World Cup.

Owen Farrell (pictured) was shown a yellow card which was upgraded to a red by the Foul Play Review officer during England’s 19-17 win against Wales on Saturday

The England fly-half was initially sent to the sin bin for the dangerous tackle on Wales flanker Taine Basham

Referee Nika Amashukeli (right) upgraded Farrell’s yellow card to a red at Twickenham

SIR CLIVE WOODWARD

The mindboggling decision to rescind Owen Farrell’s red card is yet another example of rugby shooting itself in the foot. It has made the game a complete and utter laughing stock.

When I first heard Farrell had been cleared to play with immediate effect, I was lost for words and just totally dumbfounded. My reaction was: ‘You have got to be joking?’

Everyone I’ve spoken to in the game was expecting the England captain to face a long ban and miss at least the early stages of the World Cup after his high shot on Wales’ Taine Basham.

Those same people, like me, were left completely shocked by Farrell’s exoneration. Personally, I’m flabbergasted. There is no bigger supporter of English rugby – and Farrell – than me.

England will, of course, be very pleased Farrell is now available for the World Cup. But I have to say the decision on him has not done them or the game itself any favours.

Rugby fans across the world – and that includes English supporters – are, on the whole, incredulous at what’s happened and they have every right to be.

The independent judicial committee which adjudicated on Farrell’s case decided that the foul play review officer should not have upgraded his card from yellow to red.

They did so on the basis that Basham had been hit by England hooker Jamie George and that altered the Wales player’s direction of travel before he was tackled by Farrell.

Steve Borthwick (middle) will be able to select Farrell for their upcoming warm-up match against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin

Farrell had been facing a ban which would have kept him out of the early stages of the World Cup

That was enough for them to say there was mitigation and that the card should have stayed yellow. Farrell was initially sent to the sin bin for colliding with Basham, but rugby’s new bunker review system decided he should have been sent off after television footage was analysed. I don’t think anyone could argue with that view.

By saying that the official who made the bunker review decision was wrong, the new system – which seemed to work well at Twickenham to me – has now been completely undermined.

My view is that the bunker review system is a welcome addition to the game.

But the three Australian judges on the committee have now essentially said it doesn’t work. I would love to know what rugby experience they have to make that call.

All three have badly let the game down on the eve of its biggest occasion.

What is going to happen the next time a player makes a high tackle and then the decision is checked by the bunker system? I can tell you. Players will look at the Farrell case as a yardstick.

They will say: ‘Farrell got off, so why shouldn’t I?

Scotland’s Zander Fagerson and his head coach Gregor Townsend must be absolutely fuming.

Fagerson saw his yellow bumped to a red by the bunker system and he was handed a ban after a high tackle against France.

I’d be fascinated to know his thoughts on why he was suspended and Farrell not as there was no difference in the offences committed.

The decision to rescind the red card has sent shockwaves through the world of rugby

Rugby is in a very strange position if a professional team of referees decides on a red card and then a panel of Australian judges tells them they’re wrong.

Unfortunately, that is exactly the position we’re in! It’s farcical and a massive own goal for the sport on so many levels. I’m really not sure where rugby goes from here.

The sport is struggling badly and needs to attract new fans. This sort of farce will not only not do that, but also turn those who love rugby away from it.

Farrell should have been banned for three or four matches and even a one or two-game ban would have been acceptable to a degree.

To overturn the red card completely is just so wrong.

I’m sure England head coach Steve Borthwick would have expected a long ban and there is now going to be massive pressure on him. The Farrell debate will dominate for weeks to come.

Again, that is not good for rugby on the eve of a World Cup. It is more negative headlines the game doesn’t need.

It was expected George Ford would start at No 10 against Ireland on Saturday.

Now Farrell is back available again, Borthwick faces a big call. The spotlight will be on the pair of them for the foreseeable future.

But if they or anyone connected to English rugby thinks this decision will quickly be forgotten, then they are very, very wrong. This is going to run and run.

CHRIS FOY

Put aside the identity of the reprieved player for a minute, as it is an inflammatory factor. This is an outrageous, shocking decision. It doesn’t matter who had done it – the offence warranted a ban.

The fact that it’s Owen Farrell in the eye of this global storm just polarises the debate. But strip it all back and it’s quite simple; someone tackled too high, dangerously, illegally, making contact with the head of an opponent. The head is supposed to be protected; that has been a modern-day rugby crusade, as a concussion-related crisis threatens to engulf the sport.

Farrell (middle-left) also clashed with Wales 10 Dan Biggar (middle-right) after the incident

As it was yet another reckless, high shot by Farrell, there is absolute up-roar, in these islands and far beyond. The vast majority of those who have any awareness of the incident and the aftermath are united in believing it was an open-and-shut case.

A serial offender was expected to receive a hefty suspension, but even if someone with a clean record had slammed their shoulder into Taine Basham’s head, a sanction would have been expected.

When Farrell had his yellow card upgraded to red last Saturday, it was hard to find any complaint at all about that match-day outcome. There wasn’t a hint of indignation from the England camp – just a matter-of-fact focus on going through the looming disciplinary process. Public opinion seemed to be one-way traffic; supportive of justice being done.

In the period between the final whistle at Twickenham and today’s announcement of a judicial verdict which has stunned the rugby community, a finding of guilt was universally assumed. It wasn’t a question of whether Farrell would be banned, but for how long.

Instead, he is off the hook and the condemnation that has followed cannot just be characterised as a witch-hunt against the Red Rose skipper. It is deeper than any such agenda.

England will start their Rugby World Cup campaign against Argentina on September 9

This creates an alarming sense that a union with the money to deploy formidable legal clout can ride rough-shod over the game’s crusade to protect players’ welfare, and expose it as a sham. It creates a them-and-us divide in the sport, leaving the poorer nations incensed by perceived special treatment.

What a mess. The game has yet again managed to bring itself into disrepute. With the World Cup just three weeks away, rugby’s entire disciplinary system, its duty-of-care obligations to players and its so-called core values have all been reduced to dust.

NIK SIMON

England are one of the few countries who could have got away with this one.

Money brings power and, unlike their rivals, the RFU can afford to have their own in-house counsel with 35 years’ experience at the bar.

The laws of the game are flaky at the best of times so are we really surprised that Richard Smith, a member of the King’s Counsel, was able to unpick the legalities of a high tackle?

Sadly, we live in an age of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The likes of Italy, Samoa or Fiji would never be able to afford such representation and their skipper would have had the book thrown at them.

The Saracens fly-half has found himself in trouble before over his tackle technique, notably being cleared of a ban earlier this year for a similar incident

It is a terrible look for a sport suffering from an image crisis. It was a totally reckless act of play; Farrell’s face when he appeared on the big screen at Twickenham confirmed that.

Being such a high-profile case, sending social media into meltdown, it has totally undermined the work being done to improve rugby’s image around player safety.

Irrespective of Farrell’s intentions, the image of his shoulder planting into the face of Taine Basham – a collision deemed not worthy of a ban – will only add fuel to the fire of a sport that often feels like it is being burnt at the stake.

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