Can’t compare rugby union’s past with current concussion protocols – Rob Baxter

Exeter boss Rob Baxter has made a robust defence of rugby union’s concussion measures and claims there is “little value” in comparing the issue now with historic cases in the sport.

World Cup winner Steve Thompson says he can no longer remember England’s 2003 triumph because of brain injuries he suffered playing the game and has joined a group of former internationals planning legal action for negligence against the rugby authorities.

These cases, which also include former Wales back-row forward Alix Popham and ex-England flanker Michael Lipman, have led to fears the sport faces a wave of neurological problems among retired professionals without serious reform of the game.

Rugby Union – IRB Rugby World Cup 2011 – England Training Session – Carisbrook
World Cup winner Steve Thompson has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and says he has no recollection of England’s 2003 triumph (David Davies/PA)

“Rugby is probably the leader in monitoring return to play safety practices around head injuries,” said Baxter, director of rugby at European and English champions Exeter.

“That’s been in place for a number of seasons. It’s certainly not something that’s dripped away, if anything it’s looked in more detail year on year.

“I think people are being a little naive if they think people are slipping through the net.

“Whatever’s happened with these guys, however unfortunate it is, is a way down the line. The difference between then and now is so significant that there’s almost very little value in trying to compare the two.

“The one thing everyone in rugby can say with real confidence is that the game is frontline as far as monitoring anything around concussion management.”

Baxter, a former forward, made over 300 appearances for Exeter during a 16-year professional playing career.

He was still playing at the time of England’s World Cup success in 2003 and insists he had no issues with player-welfare during his career.

“Our doctor at the time was Adrian Harris, who’s our lead doctor now,” Baxter said.

Rugby Union – Wales Training Session – Vale of Glamorgan Hotel
Former Wales rugby player Alix Popham has been diagnosed with early onset dementia (David Davies/PA)

“I’ve got every confidence now that if I suffered any concussive injury he would have treated it in the same way that he would now.

“I don’t think I have any risks from repeat concussions or head injuries and I feel we were managed well at that time.

“The only thing I can focus on is how it is managed now and I believe we manage it very well.”

Baxter said it is “disingenuous” for people not to recognise the steps rugby has taken to make the sport a safer place.

“As tragic as it can be for the individual involved – and I fully accept that – I don’t know whether there’s even a higher prevalence of early onset dementia in a rugby player than there is the general population,” he said.

Rugby Union – Bath Rugby – Filers
Former England flanker Michael Lipman (David Davies/PA)

“But I’m not quite sure how more (safety measures) we can put in because of how much is done around concussion now.

“People don’t realise that you are likely to fail a HIA (head injury assessment) without having any head injury at all. That’s how hard it is to pass, to get back on a field you have to be felling well and cognitively bang on – you’ll be asked something you don’t know.

“We are a very good sport at jumping on something and creating something huge.

“There’s no reason not to have discussions about this. But I think people are being a little disingenuous if they’re not prepared to say about the huge steps we’ve already taken.”

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