George North concussion: Remove the risk? Not without diluting the sport

Rugby is not American football: from a very early age, players are instructed not to tackle opponents with their heads

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The Independent Online

How long should George North spend watching rugby, rather than playing it? Is he unusually prone to concussion, or plain unlucky? Is the union game facing a fundamental problem that could – and should – lead to its enforced mollification, or is it in the throes of health and safety-induced panic?

The answer to the first, most immediately pressing of these questions is simple: let the specialists decide. As Jim Mallinder, the Northampton rugby director who signed North a couple of seasons ago, quite reasonably suggested, an informed assessment by a qualified neurologist with full access to the player’s medical records might carry just a little more weight than the views of opinionated outsiders with axes to grind and agendas to pursue. After all, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

If it is found that North’s concussion history poses a significant threat to his wellbeing, he will have two choices: pack it in voluntarily and do something else for a living, or allow someone in authority to make the call for him. Rugby demands pretty much everything of a sportsman, but equally it is possible for a human being to give too much of himself to rugby.

As for the union code itself, there is a growing risk of it talking itself into voluntary emasculation. Rugby is not American football: from a very early age, players are instructed not to tackle opponents with their heads; by definition, concussion incidents are either accidental or caused by a miscreant acting outside the laws of the game. It might just about be possible to remove 99 per cent of the risk of such accidents occurring, but not without diluting the sport to the point of unrecognisability.

Those who say that rugby is a victim of its own dramatic progress in the realm of fitness and conditioning – who quake at the sight of unusually powerful and unprecedentedly dynamic full-time professional athletes clattering into each other with such little regard for their own safety –  have a case.

But so does Mallinder when he insists that his club are doing right by North.

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