World Rugby is set to make the biggest change to player welfare in a decade, extending the stand-down period for professional players who suffer an obvious concussion to 12 days, Stuff can reveal.
The new policy is set to be introduced on July 1 will significantly reshape the landscape, and comes after pressure from player welfare groups and harrowing accounts from former players such as Carl Hayman, the ex-All Blacks prop who has been diagnosed by early onset dementia .
At present, a player who is clearly concussed on a Saturday can, in theory, be available to play again the following weekend.
That will now end, bringing World Rugby into line with the Rugby Football League and the Australia Football League, who increased their return-to-play periods to 11 days and 12 days, respectively, earlier this year.
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Prior to 2011, rugby had a mandatory three-week stand-down period, but New Zealand Rugby concussion scientist Danielle Salmon told Stuff that the professional game had to get the balance right between making sure players were fully recovered from concussion, and making sure they weren’t discouraged from reporting concussions in the first place.
“There’s a balancing act in there,” she said. “What happens when we put that 21-23 days stand-down, which we have in the community [game]we know that potentially that does drive an underreporting of concussions.
“But, you want to make sure that … you have some kind of hard lines on when people can go back to play if they’re fully recovered.
“Some people may recover in 12 days, but we want to ensure that the majority are fully recovered before they go back.
“It’s that balancing act between having a set period that people have to be out versus potentially driving that underreporting of concussions.
“It’s really easy when you can see it [concussion]but it’s those subtle signs where potentially if somebody’s not honest about how they’re feeling, sometimes they’re difficult to see.”
In practice, most players who suffer a concussion do not return within seven days, but there have still been some high-profile incidents that have sparked significant concern from player welfare groups.
For example, the British and Irish Lions selected England’s Luke Cowan-Dickie for a tour match in South Africa last year, despite the hooker being knocked out in the English Premiership final seven days earlier.
The updated system will prevent that from happening again.
However, it is also understood the new system could still allow some players who fail an HIA to return in seven days, provided they do not have a history of concussions.
For example, if a player is removed from the field with “the potential” for concussion, but without clear on-pitch symptoms or signs, he or she could return in seven days provided they pass all the necessary tests.
This means a gray area will remain, but it’s understood that the rationale behind this is to encourage players to be honest about any symptoms they may be experiencing.
Overall, however, the new approach will be seen as more conservative than the current settings.
World Rugby currently uses a six-stage return to play system, with each stage lasting a minimum of 24 hours.
In January, it added another safeguard, with any player in line to return within 10 days of a concussion needing to be assessed by a World Rugby-approved Independent Concussion Consultant.
New Zealand Rugby has typically been cautious in this area. When All Blacks Codie Taylor and Ardie Savea failed HIAs during a test against the Wallabies in Perth last year, they were ruled out of the following weekend’s test against Argentina, despite being medically cleared to play.
Similarly, when Beauden Barrett suffered a head knock against the Highlanders in March, the Blues were quick to rule him out of the following weekend’s game, at the least.
Rugby has been wrestling with the concussion issue for years, and a number of former players are suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union, and the Wales Rugby Union, alleging that the risks to players were “known and foreseeable”.
Last year, the lawyer preparing a lawsuit against World Rugby told Stuff that long-term brain damage was “an epidemic” that affected a number of sports.
“I think the danger is, whenever any sport has a story like this come out, and they just focus on their own house,” said Richard Boardman of London-based law firm Rylands.
“So, the danger is that one just focuses on one specific example and then tries to dismiss that for whatever reason. Well, in reality, this is an epidemic, impacting every contact sport across the world.”