NHRU: Newcastle rugby referees face concussion test
Newcastle referees will have the power to sideline concussed players for 12 days under an Australian Rugby Union trial this season.
The ARU, responding to growing concern about the long-term effects of head knocks in contact sports, announced on Thursday that it would trial a “blue card” system in Newcastle and Canberra rugby before rolling out the system nationwide next year.
The on-field referee will have the authority to issue a blue card to “any player presenting signs of concussion”. The player must then leave the field for the rest of the match and cannot play again for at least 12 days, even if they pass a doctor’s concussion test. Juniors cannot play or train for 19 days.
“As there is no gold-standard test that a doctor can do post-match to reliably diagnose or exclude concussion in their rooms, the ARU errs on the side of caution,” the governing body said.
“A person with concussion can appear normal at rest (in the doctor’s rooms) but become symptomatic with activity. Therefore, a doctor can only conclude a concussion over time.”
Referees can already stop a game and send off concussed players, but Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union general manager Andy Fairfull expected it to be more common now that officials had the visual cue of the blue card and more concussion training.
“It gets reported into the Rugby Link playing system . . . it’s now far stricter to get you back on the field,” Fairfull said. “They’re a little worried about the over-precautionary side of it, but given where it’s heading with law suits, and also it’s still truly unknown medically.
“I reckon with a blue card more will go off the field than last year, because the referees have had the training about recognition and they’ve got another card. It’s brought it into focus.”
Head knocks have been in the news after former Knights NRL winger James McManus launched legal action against Newcastle over the ongoing effects of repeated concussions. The NRL fined three clubs, including Newcastle, a total of $450,000 over their handling of concussed players in matches last weekend.
Fairfull predicted the new mandated 12-day break for blue-carded players would be a point of contention for NHRU clubs.
“Wait til it happens. I guarantee there’ll be uproar for days if a superstar misses out on the finals series,” he said. “But the evidence is that concussion management is the right way to go. You wouldn’t have these law suits in league if it wasn’t the right way to go. Players themselves are recognising the safety.
“We’re delighted to have the trial. We think it’s the right way to go. At some point in time, legally, injuries are going to start to become civil cases, clubs will get included on suits, associations will get included on suits.”
New Zealand is introducing blue cards to all club rugby this year after a trial in 2014. Its stand-down periods are 21 days for seniors and 23 for juniors.
Fairfull said the growing athleticism of club rugby players inevitably led to harder collisions.
“Rugby isn’t quite as savage [as league], but the fact still remains players are training more, they’re faster, stronger, but the field is still the same size.”
He said the increased pressure on referees to assess concussion was more a factor in junior ranks, where some referees are as young as 15.
“In chatting with the referees about it, they’re probably more worried about that issue in juniors, because in seniors, if it’s a Dan Kevill, you’ve got the best referees in the zone, they’re used to being under pressure, they’re used to being criticised, getting howled at.
“If you take some of these younger referees who are doing juniors and a parent starts ripping in. Their attitude to that pressure will be interesting. If we don’t get that behaviour back to the referees right, you’re cutting off young guys wanting to be referees.
“The blue card at the wrong time in an under-15 fixture can count out a superstar for finals. But it’s one of the issues: how do our younger refs learn it properly and execute it widely.”
Fairfull said it was not practical to have independent assessors at every game and the ARU was attempting to find a workable solution.
ARU medical and development staff have held seminars in recent weeks to educate NHRU referees, coaches and club medical staff on the system.
“The aim is to gather feedback from the upcoming trials and work towards rolling out the blue card system nationally across our grassroots competitions at both junior and senior level,” ARU chief medical officer Warren McDonald said.