Rugby

Tom Wood Tackle On Josh Van Der Flier Sums Up Rugby's Head Injury Problem

Tom Wood Tackle On Josh Van Der Flier Sums Up Rugby's Head Injury Problem

Rugby is again mired in a controversy over head injuries. Steve Thompson, World Cup winner with England, revealed a few weeks ago that he now has Early Onset Dementia at age 42 and can't remember lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003. He is one of many players said to be bringing lawsuits against World Rugby for the sports's treatment of concussion.

Anyone looking for evidence about the massive challenges the sport still faces in protecting the brains of its players need only look at the RDS this afternoon. In the 70th minute of Leinster's win today over Northampton at the RDS, Tom Wood torpedoed through a very vulnerable Josh van der Flier to clear him from a ruck. van der Flier was looking at the referee when Wood smashed his forehead with a diving shoulder. van der Flier was sent staggering backwards, clutching his head.

Referee Pierre Brousset took a look at the incident and decided it merited just a penalty.

Curiously, the former players doing punditry on the match - Brian O'Driscoll, Alan Quinlan and Dylan Hartley - all expressed varying degrees of sympathy with Wood. Here's Alan Quinlan defending the decision not to give Wood a card on Virgin Media's coverage, and essentially blaming van der Flier for leaving himself exposed.

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Here's rugby's problem with head injury in a nutshell. It's both a technical issue and a cultural issue. The rule book seems to protect the smashing the heads of players in specific instances, while there's also a clear understanding amongst all of the former greats of the game providing punditry that a tackle like this was not an immediate sending-off, which was the opposite reaction of many people watching at home. Here we step into the vast gulf in opinion over head injuries in rugby. For anyone watching the game at home, it is clear that tackles like Wood's should have no place in any sport. Whatever about the technicalities of the rulebook, if rugby is serious about curbing concussion, it can't allow players to clatter defenseless players in the head.  Ex-players - English and Irish - see the tackle in starkly different terms.

There's been a lot of talk from former players about what the sport needs to do about concussion since Thompson and others shared their stories. It's a welcome conversation, but if referees and former players feel tackles like Wood's shouldn't even incur a trip to the Sin Bin, then the sport isn't really serious about player protection. 'I don’t want to kill the game. I want it regulated,’ Steve Thompson told the Guardian. Regulation starts with stamping out clear-outs like this.

Donny Mahoney
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Donny Mahoney is Chief Sportswriter and one of the founders of Balls.ie

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