Rugby is a scary sport

Eufemia Didonato

When I played the game I had no respect for my body. My job was to make a tackle, get over the ball and have an impact on the match. I prided myself on putting my head where others wouldn’t put their feet. So it’s fair to say that I’ve […]

When I played the game I had no respect for my body. My job was to make a tackle, get over the ball and have an impact on the match. I prided myself on putting my head where others wouldn’t put their feet. So it’s fair to say that I’ve been taking pretty close notice of the stories over the past week of players who have suffered debilitating brain injuries which they think were caused by playing rugby.

My thoughts go out to those players as it is saddens me to think the sport we all love could have such a negative impact. I hope that I’m one of the lucky ones who didn’t suffer any permanent damage, and I have no symptoms whatsoever.

But I did suffer one bad concussion in my career. It scared me then and what I can remember of it scares me now.

It happened when I was 18 or 19, and on the cusp of making the England squad. There were regional training centres then so I was in a session with Wasps and Saracens players down at St Mary’s University. We were doing a tackling drill, and I remember it was raining. The next thing I can recall is waking up in hospital with a doctor asking how I had suffered my head injury. I couldn’t tell them.

It turned out my friends had taken me to hospital, and the doctor’s advice was simple – take her home and keep an eye on her. That was a horrendous night, and I remember feeling sensitive to light and sick throughout.

But the symptoms eased, I returned to playing and I have not suffered a concussion since. I took some basic precautions, starting by always wearing a good moulded gumshield and changing it regularly, reasoning it took some of the force of the blows. I also changed my technique slightly, ensuring I got low in the tackle and also in the right body position to try and get over the ball, tucking my head down so it was less exposed where possible. So far I have been fortunate, but others were not so lucky. 

Kat Merchant has spoken about her experiences this week, and I vividly recall seeing her knocked out on the pitch during a game between her team, Worcester, and my Saracens side. She immediately went stiff as she hit the turf and I remember crouching over her, trying to stop players running into her as the game briefly continued. It was one of two occasions when I felt scared for a player on the pitch, with the other being in a game between England and Canada when one of the opposition players suffered a sickening blow to the head.

Kat recovered, but I remember during the 2014 Rugby World Cup that we knew she had to be careful. One more serious blow to the head and her career was over, and she retired after that tournament.

The thing is, I do not want any of this to drive players – and particularly women – away from the sport. The sport saved my life and I wouldn’t change anything about my career. I would put my head in those rucks, throw myself into those tackles just as I always did. 

Sport will never be 100 per cent safe but the benefits – the fitness, the friendship, values, the sense of achievement – outweigh the downsides.

That said, I am concerned about research which suggests women and girls are more susceptible to brain injuries than men. I would like to see more research into that and ask what we can do about it. That means education both about the risks, about the amount of contact players should be exposed to and the right technique to minimise the dangers. From my perspective, poor tackle technique, incorrect body positioning at the breakdown and contact with the ground lead to so many injuries and throughout my time as a coach and an RFU Coach Developer, I always felt it was paramount to teach these areas properly.

If players get technique right then they massively reduce the risk of potential head injuries. If they do that then we can focus on the positives around rugby, which for me meant channelling my energy and finding a goal that I focused on and achieved.

I say this not just as a former player or coach but also as an RFU Council member. We know the conversation around this issue is not a positive one at the minute but protocols are being put in place to protect players, such as limiting contact training, recognising an issue immediately once it happens and then ensuring the player is fully recovered before they play again. Rugby has taken so many big strides to make the sport safer, and we will continue to do so.

So while I have been shocked and saddened by what we know now, I can assure you we are doing everything we can to ensure other players don’t have to go through the same issues in the future.

Our sport is a great one, and there are so many positives. If I had my time again I wouldn’t change a thing. For me the positives far outweighed the negatives – and I say that as someone whose life could have gone down a very different path without rugby. We have done so much but there is more to do, and we are doing it. 

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