Dr Éanna Falvey set great example with call on Conor Murray in Australia match

Alan Quinlan: It didn’t matter that a Test match was on the line, concussion protocols had to be followed

 

After the game on Saturday, I got a Tweet from Peter Robinson, father of the schoolboy Benjamin Robinson who died on the side of a rugby pitch in January 2011. Since his son’s death, Peter has been campaigning for greater awareness of concussion and so obviously what happened in the Ireland game had a deeper resonance for him than most.

Four Ireland players went through head injury assessment protocols during the game – Johnny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Rob Kearney and Conor Murray. It was the Murray incident that Peter got in touch with me about. He had suffered a knee in the side of the head from Quade Cooper and although he was clearly groggy afterwards he played on for a few minutes.

As I said at the time on commentary, it was really good to see what happened next. Éanna Falvey, who has been the Ireland team doctor for a few years now, basically took the decision himself to bring Murray off the pitch. If you were in the ground and you had the ref-link radio, you could hear the referee Glen Jackson stopping play to say, “Green nine, head injury”.

Murray was over the far side of the pitch at that point and was about to put into a scrum. The scrum had gone down three times and it was in the Ireland 22. This was with only nine minutes to go and Ireland just three points ahead. It was a nervous time, a crucial point in the game. And yet Falvey made his call, even though he knew the player wouldn’t be happy about it.

Referee’s camera

You could see through the referee’s camera that Murray didn’t want to go anywhere. As far as he was concerned, he was fine to continue. But the fact Falvey could be dominant in that situation and insist that Murray come off for the assessment just goes to show the strides rugby is making in taking concussion seriously. It probably wouldn’t have happened even just a year ago.

 

Murray came off and did his assessment under the stand. He was able to answer all the questions and pass the test so he could go back on. He was off the pitch for four minutes, which could have been crucial. But I still think that even if it had been, it’s a price worth paying.

You can’t get a much higher-profile case than a Test match that is in the balance with 10 minutes to go. If we’re trying to change the culture in rugby when it comes to concussion, sometimes players are going to have to be taken out of games even though they don’t want to be. We have to send out the message that player health is the most important thing.

I had never spoken to Peter Robinson before. I had heard about his son, of course, and I knew it had been a terrible tragedy. After he Tweeted me on Saturday night, we swapped emails and we spoke on the phone on Monday afternoon. He said he was encouraged by the way the Murray thing was handled and he was happy to hear me talk about it in commentary.

Three blows

We talked about his son. All the reports afterwards had called him Ben but Peter told me that actually his name was Benjamin and that his mother Karen loved to call him that. Benjamin took three blows to the head during the game in 2011 and had played on each time.

Second Captains

 

Near the end of the game, he walked over to his mother on the sideline and said he didn’t feel too good and within a couple of seconds he collapsed. Two days later, he died. The inquest two years later said his death was due to Second Impact Syndrome, essentially saying that he had received a blow to the head, causing his brain to swell before it had recovered from an earlier injury.

Listening to Peter, what struck me was how easily it was allowed to happen. Think of all the clubs and schools and teams all across the country where sometimes you only have a couple of adults supervising 30 or 40 kids. It could so easily slip through the cracks that one kid has taken a couple of knocks. You can’t hold it against a coach who has to get the gear ready, who has to line the pitch and organise that many people.

That’s why the culture change is so necessary. It’s happening, bit by bit.

We have to get rugby to the point where a player automatically comes off the pitch if there is any doubt at all as to whether he has been concussed or not. It can’t be the player’s choice. Somebody has to make that call for him or her.

It’s a difficult transition to make, especially the further down the ranks you go. I can only imagine the situation in a junior rugby game down home between Clanwilliam and Kilfeakle. Local rivals, a big derby and the best player on one side takes a bang to the head. Who’s going to tell him he has to come off?

The reality of it is the player will probably just get a bit of a magic sponge and he’ll play away. There’s probably no doctor there. This is hard-nosed rugby and nobody wants to walk off the field unless they have to.

Walk off

This is the key. We have to make it more acceptable to walk off the pitch when you’ve taken a bang to the head.

 

I’ve run off plenty of knocks over the years but there has to be an acceptance that you can’t run off a knock to the head. We’ve had our warning about Second Impact Syndrome and we need to heed it.

In Ireland the IRFU have engaged with clubs and referees. They’ve sent the protocols out to each club in the country and there is information on the website. The responsibility has to lie with coaches and referees. They have to be strong. If a player doesn’t want to come off the pitch, tough. It’s not possible to have a doctor at every game so there’s a chance it could lead to people being over-careful.

You’ll end up sometimes with players raging on the sideline at not being allowed play. But the sport is better off not taking chances.

Rugby is a physical sport and always will be. My own son has started playing it.

He’s only six and he’s enjoying himself. But as he gets older, the collisions are going to be bigger and bigger. I couldn’t help thinking of him after I was talking to Peter Robinson. All Peter wants is for him and Benjamin’s mother Karen to be able to say that rugby did the right thing when it came to concussion. There’s no point us skating around it any more – it’s serious and it will affect the future of the game.

But a day like Saturday showed what’s possible if the correct protocols are followed. Four Irish players got knocks on the head and the right thing was done by them by those responsible.

The system worked as it was supposed to. The Irish team doctor made his decision on Conor Murray completely divorced from the pertaining state of the game and regardless of the will of the player.

If it can happen at a crucial time in an international Test match, then nobody at a lower level has any excuse for taking risks. That’s as good a message as any to take away from the weekend.

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