Gerry Thornley: HIAs have been undermined
Provinces’ weekend achievements clouded by events that led to Conor Murray’s HIA
Munster’s Conor Murray is tackled by Josh Strauss of Glasgow Warriors during the sides clash at Scotstoun on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
When you think of it, that was actually one of the finest weekends Irish rugby has known in the pool stages of European Champions Cup or its predecessor the Heineken Cup. While Ulster were effectively knocked out, Leinster and Munster qualified with a round to spare and have home quarter-finals within range, while little oul‘ Connacht have taken their qualification hopes to the final weekend.
This would have seemed fanciful in the extreme at the outset of the competition in early October, never mind amid the doom and gloom of this point a year ago.
It’s a pity, therefore, that these achievements, and notably Munster’s gritty win in Glasgow on Saturday, were to some degree overshadowed by the events that led to Conor Murray undergoing a pitchside head injury assessment (HIA), and the ensuing investigation by the tournament organisers at the behest of the chairman of their medical advisory group, the RFU’s Simon Kemp, into what is classified as an untoward incident review.
Of course, the issue of players suffering concussion, and particularly their onfield or pitch-side assessment, is both currently very topical and very serious.
North incidentGeorge North
An investigation by World Rugby did not impose any sanctions on Northampton, even if it expressed its disappointment and concluded that North should not have been allowed to return to the field after passing a HIA.
On foot of their investigation, the game’s global governing body decreed that even if a player is suspected of having suffered concussion, then the player in question should be permanently removed from the field of play without any HIA taking place.
To a degree you have to wonder how much of this is optics, and at the behest of World Rugby, and to what degree its various umbrella unions and tournament organisers have to be seen to be on top of this issue. It’s also a little discomfiting that one case, and its ensuing investigation, should lead to such a far-reaching decision rather than a much wider study.
Time was when World Rugby, or the IRB as it was then known, was reluctant to introduce the concept of temporarily replacing a player to assess the extent of a head injury, even though temporary replacements had long been in existence for blood injuries, even though it’s usually a lesser injury.
World Rugby’s reluctance stemmed in part from the Bloodgate incident during the Harlequins-Leinster quarter-final of 2009, and a fear that a head bin, no less than a blood bin, could be abused. Then again, you’d have thought that affording doctors greater time to assess players suspected of incurring concussion was eminently the lesser of two evils there.
After all, in its statement summing up its investigation into the North incident, World Rugby said: “The World Rugby head injury protocol clearly states that a player should be immediately and permanently removed from the field of play where there are any visible symptoms or suspicion of a potential concussion.”
However, it is the suspicion of concussion that leads to a HIA in the first place. If there is no HIA, and instead any suspected concussion will result in the removal of that player, might that make players even more reluctant to leave the field with suspected concussion if they know they cannot rejoin the game?
As an aside, one would be happier if one or two Glasgow players had been sanctioned or cited for roughing up Conor Murray, a tactic that in some cases bordered on illegal – not only late hits after his box kicks, but tackling his standing leg. No less than the targeting of Johnny Sexton or anyone else, the game, as well as team-mates, has a duty to protects its players .
Such is the way of these things, the heat on Les Kiss and the rest of the organisation, along with their fans’ disappointment, will be all the more acute if Connacht join Leinster and Munster in the post-Six Nations knockout stages.
When Jerome Graces sent off Jared Payne in the early stages of their 17-15 quarter-final defeat to Saracens at home three seasons ago, the feeling then was that Ulster had missed out on the chance of a lifetime. John Afoa and Nick Williams having moved on, and Johan Muller having returned to South Africa, that feeling has been reinforced.
Ulster have been unlucky this season, not least in not having the injured Marcell Coetzee, but by comparison they are lacking real ballast up front, whether with big ball carriers and tacklers or a potent scrum.
Last Sunday in Exeter was also a glimpse into life without Ruan Pienaar, and that didn’t look particularly encouraging either.