Nigel Owens column: Rugby is at a crossroads and players must take personal responsibility – Nigel Owens

There has been a lot of talk about player welfare and concussions in rugby of late.

Things evolve over time with research and evidence and it takes a certain period to put detail together.

Sometimes you don’t know the impact on a player’s health until later on in their lives.

You’ve got to remember it’s a very different game now to what it was 20 or 30 years ago.

It is much cleaner in a sense now. You don’t see the punches coming through in the scrum anymore or players booted on the head on the floor, which was the reality of things in the 1970s.

But what you have now is a different style of game in terms of the collisions.

When I was in school back in the 1980s, getting rugby lessons for the first time, you were taught by your gym teacher that you run at the player and you either try and run around him, side-step, dummy, pass, chip ahead or commit him to the tackle just before you passed.

That’s how the game was coached and played.

Today, you are coached to run straight into that player or employ the pick and go tactic until you bulldoze your way over the gain-line or try line.

There has been a big rugby league influence, both in defence and attack.

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There is a lot more impact in the last 20 years or so than there was in the period before that.

You are maybe now seeing the effects of that style of game with players getting bigger and stronger. Collisions are bigger now than they have ever been.

When you referee these high intensity professional games of rugby, the physicality and the collisions is massive.

I remember refereeing South Africa-New Zealand a couple of years ago, England-France, some of these Leinster-Munster, Ospreys-Scarlets derbies, the tackles and the hits in those games are massive.

It’s very different to what it was 15-20 years ago.

I think the game is at a crossroads at the moment in terms of what needs to be done to try and move away from the head-on collisions, which you are seeing a lot of.

People are taught to run into players, we need to maybe go back to trying to beat a player.

Awareness has certainly been raised in terms of head injuries.

I remember about 10-12 years ago we had a meeting with the head of the medical side of things in Australia where he was going through the new protocol around HIAs.

That was something totally new to us.

You have got to understand that rugby is a physical sport. It always has been and always will be, unless you want it to change out of all recognition and become a totally different game.

It always will be an impact sport, but what you want to do is try and reduce the head-on collisions and go back to trying to beat men rather than running through them or over them.

We need to make the game as safe as we can while remembering it is a collision sport.

To be fair to the powers-that-be, they are following medical advice and putting protocols in place where anyone who is showing signs of concussion is removed from the pitch.

World Rugby and national governing bodies are doing all they can to make this wonderful physical sport we love as safe as it possibly can be.

I have refereed games where a medical guy has been telling a player that he needs to come off and the player is saying ‘no, I’m not going off, I’m fine’.

On occasions, I have stepped in and said to the player if the medical guy’s advice is to go off then you are going off.

The referee has the final say at the end of the day. He can make a call on safety grounds if he feels a player is looking shaky on his feet.

I remember telling a player ‘this game won’t re-start until you have left the field’.

There has to be a sense of responsibility with the player as well.

If they are given all the medical advice, then the player needs to follow that.

In one game last season, I saw Tom Rogers from the Scarlets take a bang against the Dragons.

He was on his knees and he said ‘Nigel, I’ve had a hell of a bang on my head’.

So I called for the medics to come on and then Tom went off the field.

That player took ownership and responsibility, saying he was dazed and needed to go off.

Players need to follow the medical advice because it’s there for a reason.

But I have refereed a few games where I have seen players refuse to go off, telling the medic they are fine, and the medics have said ‘you are not fine, we can see by the way you are running you are not fine’.

You, then, as a referee have to step in and back the medics up and say ‘the medical advice is you leave the field, so you leave the field’.

You go on courses and conferences so that you are aware of what is going on.

There have been times where I’ve seen a player take a bang on the head and he is out cold, so I will tell the medics that when they come on and they remove him immediately from the field.

Everybody needs to be part of that player safety because it is so important.

You have to follow the advice of the professional people whose job it is to advise on medical grounds.

We maybe need to look at the amount of games players play and I would like to see a few tweaks in the laws to reduce the amount of collisions.

One of those would be reducing the number of substitutions.

I have been saying that for quite a few years now for various reasons.

It would free up more players to play at the next level down and it would mean players carrying fewer kgs of muscle, in order to play 80 minutes of rugby rather than 50.

That would then reduce the scale of the collisions.

As I say, the game is at a real crossroads. We have a lot of data and research to turn to and it’s now about everyone buying into it to ensure player safety, which is absolutely paramount.


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