Concussions have always been a danger in Rugby league, but in 2023 the dangers have become more obvious than ever. Past players have launched a class-action lawsuit against the NRL due to the long term effects of their concussions, and current player Kalyn Ponga has had to seek specialist treatment in Canada following his fourth concussion in 10 months.
Meanwhile at the local level of rugby league, concussions still dominate the injury list almost every week. With obviously less publicity than the national competition head injuries pose a massive threat to the wellbeing of players.
UC Stars Rugby League Football Club President Dylan Barton is all too familiar with concussions through his clubs ladies league tag side, as well as the men’s and women’s tackle teams. Having also played the sport himself for years there few more experienced with managing the effects of concussions.
Q: In recent years has the NRL been in contact with local clubs about new training and protocols in regard to concussions?
A: Yes, obviously, the tougher crackdown has come from the top, so it’s definitely come from the NRL, which feeds through New South Wales Rugby League, which then comes through the Canberra region rugby league. So yeah, it definitely has come from the top. Definitely we can feel the increased emphasis on concussions here locally, so the discussion is 100% being had at the top level.
Q: From your time playing, coaching and now also president of the club how often do you see concussions?
A: I’d say weekly at best, fortnightly there’d be at least one, for example, on the weekend I don’t think any of the boys got concussed but one of our tackle girls did.
I can almost guarantee you in Round 2, in a couple weeks time, there will be another one. You would be hard pressed to go to a day of local footy and not see one, but likely multiple concussions.
Q: How big of an impact do concussions have on both the individual and the club as a whole?
A: The minor ones are definitely a bit more minimal. I think now that there’s more light shed on the severity of what a concussion can do to you, that’s definitely kind of setting in on all the players and that stays in the back of their head.
People are taking it a lot more seriously now. Luckily for us, we’ve got relatively good numbers so we can afford to rest people that have had a bit of a head knock. I’m sure if we were struggling to put 13 on a field each week, having someone out with a concussion for a week would be a big issue.
But at the moment for us it’s just part of the standard protocol. Putting the players safety first, which we are more than happy to do, for player welfare on something serious like a head injury.
Q: At the NRL level they have an independent doctor system to ensure all concerning head knocks are assessed. Do you think local rugby league budgets should be increased to ensure a similar practice?
A: Maybe not at our level with most competitions being a bit more social, but I reckon they should definitely be looking to start doing that for first grade(Canberra Raiders Cup)sides like Belconnen Sharks.
They played a bit more of a semi-professional level, and that kind of extra care to those players, who are getting paid to play, I think that is definitely a step in the right direction.
Obviously it’s always going to be a bit of a budgeting issue with the cost of having a highly qualified medical official at each game, but in an ideal world I think that would be the go.
You see what has happened to Kalyn Ponga in the NRL this year, so anything we can do to limit that kind of severity would be ideal.
Q: You have seen the effect first hand through your old teammate and current men’s assistant coach Anthony Day suffering multiple concussions, is that why he is not playing this year?
A: Yeah, he just had one too many head knocks. He’s never gonna be an NRL level footy player, so the risk versus reward just wasn’t there for him anymore.
Then when Tizz (men’s coach Dave Turner) offered him the position to assistant coach that made that decision to hang up the boots even easier for him.
Q: With Anthony Day in mind, does that make you think about the severity and if enough is being done locally?
A: I think now that it’s being taken more seriously, especially from a national standpoint, local players are now starting to realize that it might not be worth playing when they’ve already suffered a few [concussions].
Going forward, if they’re getting concussed every couple of weeks, it’s probably not worth taking the risk and playing anymore. We’re now starting to realize that those long-term effects just probably isn’t worth it when you’re risking so much of your future for a season of footy.
Q: A common explanation for more local concussions is that, being they are not professionals, proper tackle technique is not always there. Do you think there should be rule changes to compensate for this?
A: I don’t think there’s a rule change that could fix the problem. I think it is just the unfortunate reality of playing a collision sport, that you have a split second to make a decision where your head goes and if you make the wrong decision, you can get concussed quite easily.
As you know, concussions don’t necessarily come from a hit to the head. They can just come from a hard hit in general, where your brain gets shaken inside your skull and that obviously increases when you play at this level.
And there’s blokes that have been playing for years that run like brick walls up against blokes that have never played before, and just the difference in that collision can lead to a concussion. So yeah, not so much on a rule change, I think just continuing to educate and making sure that concussions are identified and treated.
Q: The NRL has an 11-day stand down policy following a concussion, is this reflected locally?
A: We do, we’ve had it for a couple years now actually. I believe they introduced something along those lines in either 2020 or 2021.
It is something along the lines of if you have a concussion, you have to go and see a doctor to be assessed and if they agree that you have a concussion. You then have to see a doctor at the end of your 11 days for them to sign you off to say you can come back to play.
But we do have fairly extensive protocols for return to play, which is a great directive from Canberra region rugby league.
Q: Do you ever see a reality where concussions are a minimal risk in local rugby league?
A: Unfortunately not. Unless we can find a way to stop concussions happening when your head gets hit, I think it is just part and parcel of playing a collision sport.
Photos by Jackson Brimble