An article written for the Emerald on concussions and the Oregon club rugby team.
Oregon men’s club rugby coach Pate Tuisue stumbled across an article that opened his eyes to something he already identified with.
The article, written by Phil Gould of The Sydney Morning Herald in April, 2014, examined Alex McKinnon’s collision with Jordan McLean during a National Rugby League match in New Zealand.
McKinnon, who was playing for Newcastle, was viciously tackled by Melbourne forward Jordan McLean right before halftime. The damage to McKinnon was severe: he suffered a broken neck and faces life as a quadriplegic.
Support for McKinnon was strong, but there was just as much vitriol towards McLean from fans. Many blamed him for a dirty hit, believing if he had been under control, a man wouldn’t be confined to a wheelchair right now. Gould addresses this issue in his column, stressing its not the players who are at fault, but the game of rugby that sets them up for failure.
He writes: “When Jordan McLean and his two Melbourne Storm teammates came together with Alex McKinnon in those fateful moments during this match, they were all doing exactly what they had been coached and trained to do.”
This line of thinking resonated with Tuisue, who sees similarities between McKinnon’s injury and the rising rash of concussions that his own squad continues to suffer. Gould doesn’t blame the players. Instead, he finds fault with the evolution of coaching, tackling, rule changes and the institution of rugby.
“Concussions are the result of bad management,” Tuisue said. “We train the players to do exactly what we want out on the field — so we can’t say it’s their fault. We have given them every tool to make that tackle.”
The biggest contributor to concussions, according to Tuisue, is the lack of proper technique.
“We had a couple players on our team come from football,” Tuisue said. “When we asked them to show us their technique for tackles, the first thing they would do is the head would go right into the chest.”
Unlike football, however, rugby players don’t wear helmets, which means losing that final line of defense. In rugby, that net is gone. One bad tackle and you can intake some serious damage.
The trick for Oregon’s coaching staff is to insist on a perfect tackling form – techniques that will allow them to make big hits while maintaining a level of safety. That perfect tackle is one where the defensive player makes contact with his shoulder, keeping the head up and out of harm’s way.
“There is only so much a neck can take — we are not made out of metal,” Tuisue said.
While the coaches work in practices to teach the players how to stay safe, it’s the trainers who keep an eye on things during matches. The University of Oregon requires athletic trainers to attend every game for high-risk club sports —meaning activities that are likely to have acute injuries requiring immediate medical attention.
Eileen Bennett is one of the certified athletic trainers at Oregon who works with club sports. She helps run a clinic Monday through Thursdays, while also attending events like rugby, lacrosse, soccer and ice hockey.
“Anytime you are contacting someone else intentionally as part of your sport, injury is a predictable outcome of that,” Bennett said. “Especially because we know the way concussions happen is by running into other things.”
As an athletic trainer, Bennett has the ability to pull athletes from games, something of which the coaches are very supportive. With the decisions of who gets to play put in the hands of a third party, it allows for a more objective and honest assessment of a player’s status.
The signs Bennett watches for is when an athlete is slow to get up, or if they look dizzy and disoriented.
“Concussions are a collection of signs and symptoms,” Bennett said. “There isn’t one thing we can look at, but it’s taking everything in total.”
Even with the best intentions, concussions happen far too frequently at this level of competition. Tuisue says the rate of concussions is higher at the amateur level because the skill of the players is lower. Athletes also balance school with training, which means a concussion can be even more debilitating.
Colin Brennan, a three-year fullback with the Ducks, was one such player who suffered from a severe concussion while playing rugby. On a kickoff, he laid a huge hit on an opposing player after sprinting full-speed into him.
Brennan continued to play for the rest of the game and didn’t feel any ill effects until that evening, which was when the confusion and vomiting began. The symptoms forced him to go into the health center the next morning.
The diagnosis was a severe concussion. The doctor ordered that he stay away from looking at any screens and stop going to class to help his brain rest.
“I remember clearing out three hours of my day just to try to do a homework assignment,” Brennan said. “It would be difficult to even try to finish full sentences. It was frustrating and disappointing.”
Brennan was forced to completely withdraw from one class and struggled to get passing grades in the others.
It’s been about a year, but Brennan has finally returned to the pitch to play full contact. Although he is playing rugby once again, the concussion left a lasting mark.
“I don’t grasp things as quickly, my test taking ability has dramatically gone down,” Brennan said. “It just takes me a lot longer to do things.”
Concussions will always be a part of the sport, though they are now reported and caught at higher frequencies than ever due to the increased vigilance. No one can prevent concussions, but efforts to mitigate and catch symptoms early on continues to improve.
It’s why Tuisue has taken the initiative to make sure his players remain healthy during practice and games.
“I don’t want to coach bad techniques now and 20 years down the road hear the guy I coached can’t feed himself, can’t remember when his birthday was, can’t remember who he was married to,” Tuisue said.
There will always be cases like Brennan and McKinnon who must deal with horrific injuries. But for what its worth, Tuisue will keep working to improve his small corner of the sport.