Saracens at forefront of on-field concussion research


  • Rugby
  • Friday, 27 Mar 2015

LONDON (Reuters) - When Saracens took the field against Newcastle Falcons in the Aviva Premiership last month only the eagle-eyed in the 7,000-strong crowd would have noticed the small plaster behind the ears of their black-shirted heroes.

The white sticky tape holds in place a tiny impact sensor that the club hope will produce scientific evidence on the short-term and long-term effects of concussion on professional rugby players.

With increased concern over head injuries in a sport of big men and big hits, Saracens, the 2011 English champions and last year's Heineken Cup runners-up, want to be at the forefront of research.

"We've been aware, like most people in rugby, for some time that concussion is an issue," Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths told Reuters.

"We thought it was time we should do something about it. We need to find answers to the long term effects of repeated concussion on a professional rugby player.

"We wanted an evidence based system... and then having been concussed, an evidence based system for when a player is fit to return."

The sight of a wobbly George North staggering to his feet and playing on for Wales, despite appearing to have been momentarily knocked out, or England's Mike Brown laying prone on the Twickenham turf after a sickening hit to the head in this year's Six Nations has the shone the spotlight on concussion.

"I hope more and more people are starting to understand that concussion is not a light hearted matter," Griffiths said.

"We aspire to be the club that looks after its players as well as possible and in 25 years time I don't want to be visiting one of our players and find them suffering from dementia or another neurological disease and to say to them 'we sort of knew something was going on but we didn't really understand'" he added.

The X2 patch sensors, which measure the direction and force of any blow to the head in training or matches, were developed by X2 Biosystems in Seattle and have also been used in America's NFL and NHL, where the dangers of concussion-related trauma have been repeatedly highlighted.

Aided by a sizeable financial commitment by the Drake Foundation to the three-year project and the input of three leading academics in neurological disease, Griffiths hopes the results gathered will take the guesswork out of assessing when a player has fully recovered from a blow to the head.

"At the moment it basically boils down to a guess," he said of the current concussion protocols.

"We want something a bit more accurate. It is a kind of search and find mission. I don't know whether it will take a year, six months or two years."

Saracens began the trial in a match against London Irish last month and will look to refine and hone the programme in the future.

FRICTION GENERATED

As an example, prop forwards are the only members of the team who do not wear the sensors because of the friction generated in the scrum. Griffiths said that one idea was that impact sensors could be housed instead in a mouthguard.

"At the moment the information is downloaded from the patches after the game. Within about four or five months the patch will be reduced in size and then it delivers the information in real time."

The results, he said, will be for the wider benefit of the rugby community.

"We are not seeking any competitive advantage," Griffiths said.

"Since we started the programme we've engaged with the RFU and World Rugby. We have a good understanding with both of them now and we are conducting our research to the benefit of the wider game."

While the club are pleased with the results of the early weeks of the trial, it was too soon to comment on its success.

"It would be irresponsible to try and provide a running commentary on the research," Griffiths said.

"As soon as we have anything worthwhile to say we will do it through World Rugby or the RFU."

While awareness has been significantly raised Griffiths warned that there were still some in the game who did not take concussion seriously enough.

"The scary part of this is that there are still people in the game who probably minimise it, don't really understand... who think that if you see stars you shake your head til the stars go away," he said.

"It may be true that those kind of people won't wake up to the realities until something terrible happens.

"It's not a question of changing the game. We're not threatening the game ... we're trying to get these two decisions right; when a player needs to leave the field and when a player is able to resume playing and if we get those correct we could save a lot of professional players from massive issues later in life."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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