Rugby Union

Shontayne Hape proves rugby needs to change stance on concussion

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A tough, physical, and altogether unforgiving sport - rugby is not unfamiliar with the concept of injury.

Players seem to accept that there is a sense of inevitability in regards to injury; injury is part and parcel of the game.

Some bumps, bruises and knocks can be ignored but others cannot.

When a player's brain - a person's mode of thought and function - is hindered through the playing of their sport, one cannot sit idly by and simply accept it as an inevitability. 

The American Association for Neurological Surgeons states that concussion is "a clinical syndrome characterized by immediate and transient alteration in brain function, including alteration of mental status and level of consciousness, resulting from mechanical force or trauma."

Concisely, concussion is the diminishing of brain function through force; the negative alteration of a person's mental ability and/or status.

For a person, let alone a sportsman, to not be worried by such a concept is ludicrous, and quite frankly anyone who says concussion is 'nothing' is wrong. Players have frequently been seen to re-enter the field of play following a knock to the head because their desire to keep playing is matched only by their ignorance or stupidity in regards to the concept of concussion.

A tragic story

Take the example of cross-code rugby international Shontayne Hape. An international rugby league player with New Zealand and an international rugby union player with England, Hape had a distinguished career that was curtailed and cut short - somewhat prematurely - due to his ongoing battle with concussions. 

Hape, now 34, is a shining example of the influence repeated concussions can have on your body when ignored.

Speaking to the NZ Herald in 2014, Hape stated: "Growing up playing league in New Zealand, everyone got knocked out at some point. Everyone got concussed. You just got up and played on. We were told to be Warriors. It's the nature of the sport. Harden up.

"That was the mentality. I reckon I'd have been concussed 20 times by the time my professional league career with the Warriors, Bradford and the Kiwis ended with a switch to English rugby." 

The statement itself is eye-opening and frightening, yet Hape goes on to say that his previous experiences were "nothing compared to what was to come." Hape not only suffered in a rugby sense due to concussion but his livelihood was affected too. Unable to be in bright light, to listen to music or to spend the quality time with his family that he so cherished, Hape had become too used to concussion for his own good.

Flawed testing

Players all get their 'heads' tested pre-season and that is recognised as protocol however Hape believes that "players can manipulate" the test "by under-performing so that later if you have a head knock and you have to beat it (the test) you normally can."

This alludes to the aforementioned ignorance in regards to concussion - players putting 'finishing the match' ahead of their safety and wellbeing - a problem that is rooted through every playing level of rugby as a whole. 

Hape, now understanding the danger of head injuries, believes that the coaches are to blame as well:

He said: "There was constant pressure from the coaches. Most coaches don't care about what happens later on in your life.

"It is about the here and now. Everyone wants success. They just think 'if we pay you this you are going to do this'. Players are just pieces of meat."

By the time Hape realised the issue was so dire that he had to speak up , he was taken for tests in a French hospital where his score was "just above someone with learning difficulties"; Hape's brain was so traumatised  that even just getting a tap to the body would be a 'knockout' blow.

Institutionalised problems

Retiring from rugby due to his concussion, Hape chose to speak out in order to display the profound influence and effect that the issue has on the sport of rugby. We as viewers, players and fans now are fully aware of concussion and despite further tests and protocols being brought in the issue is far from resolved.

Use Shontayne Hape as an example of how a life can come 'crashing down' through concussion in rugby and say to yourself: 'is it worth it?'.

If the answer to that question is 'yes' then think again as there is only one correct answer - no. No, rugby (or any other sport) is not worth losing your cognitive brain function for.

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