George North, one of the biggest box-office acts in international rugby and a key element in Northampton’s attempt to retain their Premiership title while fighting on a second front in Europe, will not play again until a neurologist considers it reasonable for him to do so. After a series of recent concussion-related interruptions to his career, there is a chance that the Wales wing’s season is already over.
“He’s making good progress,” said Jim Mallinder, the rugby director at Franklin’s Gardens, in a characteristically measured response to the latest maelstrom of publicity over head injuries in top-level union. “But we won’t play George at the weekend [when the Saints visit Clermont Auvergne in a European Champions Cup quarter-final]. We have to make sure the medical experts are satisfied that he is fit to return. As soon as they say he’s right, we’ll be happy to pick him again.
“There have been lots of opinions expressed over the last few days – lots of so-called experts out there talking about the number of weeks and months he should be kept out of the game – but we must be careful that we don’t blow anything out of proportion.
“Rugby is a tough sport and people who play it understand there are inherent dangers. We are always going to have incidents, but player welfare will always come first. You have to look at everyone individually in light of his medical record. That detail is what the specialist knows. He’ll form an opinion and we’ll be guided by that.
“I remember playing 30 years ago, when the touch judge was the ‘bucket man’. Basically, you got a sponge on your head and you were thrown back on if you could walk. That wasn’t right, of course, but things are much improved now. The situation is a lot better.”
Mallinder’s comments were supported by the England and Lions prop Alex Corbisiero, who knows what it is to spend serious time out of the sport – for orthopaedic reasons, in his case – but is back up to full speed now and ready for an intense 80 minutes at the sharp end against Clermont, one of the most formidable outfits in the European game.
“As players, we’re committed to ensuring that concussion issues are properly managed,” he said. “But there’s no magic answer to the problem and everyone in the game knows what they’re signing up to when they commit to playing at this level.
“As the sport evolves, concussion will continue to be addressed as fully as possible. What we need is to find some middle ground, especially for players who are serving two masters by playing international as well as club rugby.”
North found himself at the centre of a serious controversy on the opening night of the Six Nations in February when, during a compelling Wales-England match in Cardiff, he took two heavy blows to the head – the second of which went unnoticed by his team’s medical staff. Then, during last Friday’s league game between Northampton and Wasps, he was knocked cold in the act of scoring a try in the corner. Nathan Hughes, the Wasps No 8 who caught North with his knee, was subsequently handed a three-week suspension for reckless play.
Wasps may yet appeal against that punishment, on the grounds that the collision was accidental, but Mallinder was not of a mind to argue with the panel’s finding. “I said at the time that I thought it was a red card offence,” he said. “I still do, and we don’t want it happening again.”Reuse content