By Jamie Peacock MBE, former England rugby league captain.
Over the past five or six years the protection of players following injuries in rugby league, particularly with regard to head injuries, has improved dramatically.
We now have clear protocols and systems in place to ensure players suffering any head injury during a game are only allowed to return to action when they are fully recovered and have proved, through a dedicated test, to be so.
At the start of each season, all players now have to undergo a concussion test which sets a recorded base level for the individual player. If they then suffer a knock to the head in any game, they have to be tested and meet that base level to return to the field.
You can’t just send your best player back out onto the field because it is a big game and he is crucial to your chances of winning. Player safety comes first.
It’s fair to say this was not the case in the early days of my career. In days past it was often the player’s decision, and in the heat of the battle, in a big game, no competitive player would choose not to continue.
I can remember a number of occasions when I’d tell our medical team that I felt fine to play on when I was still dazed and not sure where I was, either to get back out on the field or to prevent them from taking me off.
It’s that competitive spirit and desire to win.
Initially, the changes around head injuries were not something welcomed by many players.
I have to say that I have always been someone who believes it is my decision as to how much I put my body on the line. In the same way, I would probably now be against the introduction of head guards becoming mandatory. It’s just my nature.
Rugby players expect to get hurt and expect to have to go through pain to have success. But I think that we’ve now accepted as a collective sport, as individual players, and as coaches that players need extra protection, despite the pressure on all involved to win.
I have come to accept and understand that the safety of players has to come first, and that set standards and procedures are there for a very good reason.
Head injuries can have a life-changing impact, but when it comes to other lesser injuries, the right balance needs to be found between the decision of medical staff and that of a player who is desperate to play.
When is it right for a player to return from a lesser injury such as a back or hamstring strain, and who makes that decision?
With so much at stake in professional sport these days, striking that balance is difficult.
I’d suggest that if all players had to be 100% fit to play a game of rugby league, you’d hardly ever get two teams out on the field, or you’d have to play games much less regularly.
No matter what the medical opinion, most players would choose to play every week. But as sports professionals have short careers, decisions and treatment around injuries do need to be considered with a long-term view, rather than just with the next game in mind.
As I say, it is a difficult balance. Medical professionals have to put players first, but understand their desire to play.
Players have to understand the responsibility placed on their medical teams, and the sport as a whole.
We have come to accept that such decisions can’t always be made by players themselves, and that sports bodies and their clubs have a duty to care for players’ careers and long-term health.
Nobody can really argue with that.
Hudgell Solicitors offer rehabilitative support to sportsmen and women whose injuries have been poorly managed by medical staff. To find out more, visit our sports injury claims page or contact our team today.