Brian Carney: Rugby league must do more to minimise concussion risk from dangerous tackles

Sky Sports rugby league expert Brian Carney reflects on Stevie Ward’s decision to retire due to the effects of concussion and calls on rugby league’s lawmakers to do more to deter contact with the head from tacklers…

It’s always sad and disappointing to see someone like Stevie Ward retire at both a young age and not on their own terms. I think he has assessed his medical situation after those two concussions and done what’s best for him as a human being, which is the most important thing at this time.

It’s incredibly unfortunate for Stevie. He has not had the best of luck with injuries in recent years, he’s a very talented player and obviously well thought of at Leeds for them to make him captain of that great club.

The bigger issue facing rugby league is around concussions. As society in general and sports, in particular, discover more information about concussions, and the strength of the link between them and a variety of neurological disorders, I would suggest that every sporting governing body should be doing all in their power to limit the instances of concussive events in activities under their remit.

Rugby league is quite obviously a contact sport and there will, for long as this great game is played, be instances of accidental and unavoidable contact with the head which result in concussions. Treatment of those within a stricter concussion protocol and return to play framework will be a given for the governing body.

I would, however, like to turn the spotlight on another category of concussive events which I believe are a long way from being minimised. These are concussions which result directly from careless, reckless or deliberate contact with the head or indirectly from the same acts.

In both subsets there is, in my opinion, an unacceptable asymmetry of risk. For the injured party there is the risk of concussion and all its attendant issues that we are learning more and more about.

But for the offender, the concession of a penalty? A card of some colour? Maybe a ban and perhaps even one of two weeks or so? That is not enough.

I am cherry-picking here, but regular viewers of Super League will get my point. In 2020, for example, Tom Lineham got an eight-game ban for a “testicle grab” and Joel Tomkins got eight games for “other contrary behaviour” when he decided to put his fingers where he shouldn’t.

RFL disciplinary and concussion protocols

Almost everybody agreed that these acts needed to be punished severely – a bit like spitting at an opponent on the field, which usually leads to a chorus of: “How dare they? Red card ref! Lengthy suspension!”

But when do you recall eight-game suspensions being given for contact with the head? That is a minimum level of suspension we need to be handing out to acts that are classified as foul play and result in direct or indirect contact with the head and possibly concussion.

That would go a little way towards redressing this lopsided risk which currently exposes the victim to concussion and the guilty party to a couple of weeks on the sidelines.

There is no doubt that rugby league is a changed game in how it treats head injuries and concussions. The game needs to be complimented for the progress it has made, but more needs to be done and I think that would be accepted.

Brian Carney

I think rugby union knows what they want when it comes to contact with the head. By and large, I believe they are far stricter whereas we still let too much go in rugby league.

We, as spectators of this marvellously entertaining sport, should be able to see an incident which involves careless, reckless or deliberate contact with the head and know immediately it is a red card and lengthy suspension. At the moment, it is an unacceptable lottery which does not do enough to discourage the tackler from their actions.

There is no doubt that rugby league is a changed game in how it treats head injuries and concussions compared with five or 10 years ago, and certainly 20 years ago. The game needs to be complimented for the progress it has made, but more needs to be done and I think that would be accepted.

We saw last year how everybody went into overdrive to restart the sport during a pandemic and the bio-security steps which were taken.

There is, however, an anomaly where we are trying to provide a bio-secure environment during a pandemic yet within the game there are incidents where I believe we are not doing all we can to protect the players on the field from non-Covid-19 health issues.

We have got better, but there are more steps we can take as a game.

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