Opinion: Concussion central – Rugby League must up its game again where player welfare is concerned

Ben Olawumi
Joe Philbin has to leave the field for a HIA after suffering a concussion

Joe Philbin has to leave the field for a HIA after suffering a concussion - Alamy

Head injuries are now, rightly, a prevalent topic of conversation when it comes to rugby league and this week’s action has been the perfect example of why.

The game has seen heated debate regarding player welfare in recent months, with some former players even in the process of pursuing a claim against the RFL for alleged negligence towards concussions and the like during their playing days.

Whether you believe that claim is a rightful or wrongful one, players every week now leave the field for Head Injury Assessments, that fact can’t be denied. It’s what comes in the aftermath of those assessments that has once again sparked questioning over the last few days.

Concussion central

Thursday night saw St Helens take on Catalans Dragons live on Sky Sports. The hosts lost veteran hooker James Roby and another experienced head in Mark Percival to failed HIAs.

Both took nasty blows in challenges, and having left the field to be checked over, were correctly not allowed to return. Accordingly, they’ll both be on the sidelines for 11 days now and will miss Saints’ Challenge Cup semi-final against Leigh Leopards next weekend.

The concussion protocols were extended to 11 days this year, so players essentially have no chance of playing in their team’s next game unless – like for some this coming week – there’s a break in the fixture list.

Not many would argue against that being the right thing to do, but – in my opinion at least – that’s being let down by the laws surrounding the 18th man.

The 18th man: Why the laws of the game are contradictory

Before the start of the 2023 season, a positive change was brought in by the RFL in terms of the 18th man.

Clubs are now able to name an additional player in their matchday squad, and this has been the case in the NRL since 2021.

But where that change has been let down is in the laws around that 18th man being used. At present, a team can only call upon them should they suffer three failed HIAs in one match.

Using the example above from Thursday night, St Helens were unable to utilise their 18th man Ben Davies despite Roby leaving the field 24 minutes in.

That left a squad of 16 to play out the remaining 56 minutes of a gruelling contest at the Totally Wicked Stadium. And 16 soon became 15 when Percival was forced off just six minutes into the second half, leaving Saints with just two interchanges available at any one time for 34 minutes.

Not allowing Davies to be used, especially after a second failed HIA, seems nothing short of contradictory in terms of player welfare.

The game appears to be taking better care of those who take blows to the head, but in turn allow their teammates to run the risk of injury even more through having to then play more minutes.

Sky Sports pundits discuss laws around HIAs

St Helens have been used as an example so far in this piece, but they’re obviously far from being alone in the matter.

This weekend alone, as this article is written with one Super League game still to play, we’ve seen HIAs for Hull KR, Castleford Tigers, Leeds Rhinos, Saints and Warrington Wolves.

And when Joe Philbin had to depart the field at the DW Stadium on Friday night after being knocked out in a challenge on Kai Pearce-Paul, there were calls from the pundits in attendance for the laws to be re-jigged oncemore for the benefit of the game.

Sky Sports’ touchline reporter Jon Wells spoke while the Wire man received treatment, saying: “Last night you had 2 failed HIAs with James Roby and Mark Percival, and St Helens were significantly disadvantaged there with available numbers to come on the field.

“Warrington Wolves could be operating with 16 men now here. It’s a true 17-man game these days and the 18th man is currently only activated with a third failed HIA.

“I’m wondering whether – after this weekend in particular – the law makers of the game might look at this. Given the additional exposure to minutes for the other 16 men in the team, it is a really significant disadvantage. Food for thought for the game moving forward.”

Jon Wilkin then said he ‘couldn’t agree more’, and that with ‘head injuries being scrutinised now, you should be allowed to use them [the 18th man] and get them on’.

Former Wigan man Barrie McDermott concurred, but added the caveat of the 18th man being used depending on how the concussion is picked up.

He said: “I think it’s different if it’s a foul play HIA. This one obviously isn’t because Kai Pearce-Paul hasn’t done anything wrong there, he’s just driving with the ball, but if it is foul play then the team that goes down is disadvantaged substantially.

“In that case, I think you should be able to use that 18th man.”

New tackling laws leave bad taste in the mouth

In fairness to the RFL and the law makers in our game, rule changes are constantly being discussed, though not all will pay off.

Recent months have seen a trial run of new tackling laws being carried out in youth games, with players having to tackle lower and ‘high shots’ penalised more frequently because of it.

Numerous journalists – and fans too – have watched these games, many of which take place as a pre-cursor to Super League games. And for those who have seen them, the reviews aren’t exactly thrilling with the vast majority commenting on how stop-start they become through the whistle having to be blown more frequently.

Philbin’s injury on Friday night took around six minutes for the medical teams to take care of and safely get him back down the tunnel, so there was also time for the Sky Sports pundits to discuss those trial matches. It’s fair to say they had the same view as most others.

Wilkin said: “You can get knocked out tackling, it has very little to do with tackle height most of the time.

“I got knocked out on knees and hips more than anything else. We’re so concerned about hitting ball carriers hard, but it’s the defending that’s dangerous. Changing the tackle height is just an absolute red herring for our sport.”

McDermott agreed, saying: “You just cannot take the risk out of our game, it’s impossible.”

The numbers don’t lie

This opinion piece certainly isn’t one that has been written to take aim at those who do make the laws for the game.

Progression is key, and the introduction of the 18th man for this season after it was used in the World Cup has been a positive step forwards, one which is good to see and something that highlights the value of player welfare.

What must happen now though is another step forward in making the use of the 18th man easier to ease the strain on their teammates.

We’ve probably seen close to 250 matches now this season with two named, one for each side of course, but only twice – to our knowledge – has an 18th man been able to enter the action.

Hull KR used Will Dagger in March against Catalans Dragons after having three failed HIAs, and almost unfathomably, Widnes Vikings had four players fail assessments back in May as they lost out to Championship league leaders Featherstone Rovers. The Vikings were then allowed to call upon their 18th man.

Notably, KR also lost Lachlan Coote recently. After a number of concussions, the former full-back was forced into early retirement.

When stories like that appear, the fact that there have only been two uses for the 18th man out of circa 250 games this year so far really does tell the story. It’s time to act again.

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