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February 8th 2018

Sports Injury Claims

Referee right to follow doctor’s decision in Six Nations debate over French players’ head injuries against Ireland

Josie Robinson

Josie Robinson

Senior Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

Referee right to follow doctor’s decision in Six Nations debate over French players’ head injuries against Ireland

We are only one weekend into Rugby Union’s Six Nations competition and we have already seen the issue of head injuries and their treatment come under the spotlight.

We are only one weekend into Rugby Union’s Six Nations competition and we have already seen the issue of head injuries and their treatment come under the spotlight.

On this occasion however it has not been concern over a player being allowed to play on after potentially suffering a head injury that has caused debate, but actually players being taken off for head tests when many believe they were not required.

Given we are all calling for player safety to come first across all sports and greater care with regards to head injuries, you could ask why there is concern?

The answer is simple, a sporting result of huge significance – and they don’t come much bigger than an opening Six Nations match – was at stake and the classification of injuries had a direct impact on the final stages of the game.

Ireland were unhappy as neither French player appeared to have suffered a head related injury, and the decision to class them as so allowed France to bring on playing replacements they wouldn’t have otherwise, had the injuries been simply classed as leg injuries.

It has caused some controversy and debate over the integrity of such decisions and whether independent doctors are being unduly influenced, which would be regrettable given the recent positive steps made in raising the issue of player welfare.

Athlete welfare must be at forefront of debate over head injury decisions

It was good to hear Nigel Owens, the much respected referee, defending the doctor’s decision, in respect of the guidelines in place to protect players.

“I have an official match doctor who is telling me it’s a HIA (head injury assessment). I am no medic, and I am going to go with the official match doctor. HIA is the match doctor’s call,” he said.

It is that kind of clarity over the issue that is needed. If there is any concern over a potential head injury, it must be safety first, and the welfare of the players.

France coach Jacques Brunel has been quick to stress the decision to classify the injuries as head injuries was one taken by an independent doctor, who decided head assessments were required, allowing them to make their replacement substitutions.

Of course, there will be issues to be resolved over this, especially as some pundits called the decision a ‘disgrace’, but athlete welfare must be at the forefront of the debate, particularly in light of the emerging evidence on concussion and the impact on player’s health in the long term.

As a solicitor who represents sports men and women who may suffer prolonged injury as a result of inadequate or substandard medical care, the growing awareness and understanding of concussion must be the primary concern for those medical professionals making decisions, albeit in highly charged and emotive circumstances.

Ultimately, their duty of care is to the health and welfare of the players and this duty must take precedence over any pressure and influence from managers and coaches.

It would be hugely disappointing if we were to see it become commonplace for teams, managers and their own club doctors to attempt to influence independent match doctors over their decisions and injury classifications, simply to aid their chances of winning the match.

World Rugby makes reviews of all HIA decisions with a view of rooting out any potential abuse and has said it is looking at this incident and ‘considering the next steps’ in respect of its findings.

Hopefully no wrongdoing will be uncovered and if it is found the injuries should have been classed differently, the fallout will be focused on how match officials and doctors can make better decisions.

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