The Scary Consequences of Foul Play


Who is killing rugby in Sri Lanka? It appears choirmasters are involved in rugby destiny, and the answer depends from which angle you view the game.

•       The Medics refuse a player with head injuries to return?

•        The coaches and old boys who want a win, insist returning a player to the play area? 

•       The spectators who repeatedly infringe the playing area and assault other players or match officials?

•       The referees are accused of wearing coloured glasses and cannot see.

A leading brain injury academic believes the Rugby Union could be ‘a lot more aggressive’ in tackling contact reduction in the sport. Professor Damian Bailey is co-author of a study by the University of South Wales aimed at understanding how recurrent contact impacts the brain long term.

The need for tackling contact reduction arises from the need to change how a tackle takes place. In the past, it was around or below the waist, hands around. Now tackling is above the waist, choking a player to prevent freedom to offload. In addition, the method of using the shoulder only with less commitment of hands around invariably ends with the hands ending above the shoulder. Until World Rugby amends the law, the onus will be on coaches to reduce the impact leading to high tackles and yellow or red cards.

Recently, the Referee issued a red card to a Royal player in the school’s Super Round. Does the red card and following disciplinary action apply across all rugby in Sri Lanka? The question arises as the next match for Royal will be with Trinity, which is outside the Tournament. The SLSRFR manual says, “Member schools of SLSRFA are permitted to play their traditional and friendly Rugby matches. However, the home and visiting teams must be responsible for all disciplinary matters relating to their players, coaches and staff.”

Therefore, is it for the two schools to decide not to extend the sanctions imposed on a player at the league tournament?

As regards the Tournament, the authority for discipline is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education. They are conducting the Tournament according to the rules stipulated by the Sri Lanka Schools Rugby Football Association (SLSRFA). Therefore, they are responsible only to the Ministry of Education. All disciplinary matters relating to all these tournaments are to be handled by the Disciplinary Committee of SLSRFA, which includes a member of the SLR Judicial Committee.

What does the statement “Matches of the above tournaments shall be played under the rules of the game of Rugby Football” mean? Is it only a guide with no reference to World Rugby? As it is, Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) is associated with World Rugby, and SLSRFA is a constituent of SLR.

Another concern is the increasing number of head injuries, also referred to as head injury assessment, and blue cards issued. Implementing the same as practised in some countries needs legitimacy through the appointment of Match Day Doctors (MDD). The use of blue cards is despite the question of the legitimacy of the MDD. The Host team appoints the MDD.

The responsible rugby community is surprised by the events of Sri Lanka School Rugby, and particularly, the attitude of SLSRFA and old boys who advise the school on rugby. SLSRFA officials think they have been doing this for over 20 years, governed by the Ministry of Education, to whom they are responsible.

However, the present trends of injury management, prevention and responsibility in different cases require professional guidance. For example, what purpose does it serve to have a gynaecologist at a rugby match though he knows concussion and injury?

 I saw incidents of players after possible head contact. In one case, the Referee showed a blue card after a lengthy examination by a doctor. Speaking to a source of the school, he emphasised that the player would be on the field next week as it was a key match. The consideration is match result driven without regard for a young player’s future. The attitude is to win a trophy and not play rugby that is enjoyed and is a lifelong experience and not affected by a head injury.

Then there was an incident where a player went back as ‘the recognise and remove first’ was interpreted as can come back after 12 minutes. Then the argument was directed to a tactical substitution and a rolling substitution. But, again, the player welfare was non-existent.

 In another game, the doctor appointed by a home team agreed with the home team staff to send the player to resume. In contrast, some simple tests by the Referee resulted in the Referee saying no to a return.

There was also an incident of a physio (or is it a masseur?) arguing with the doctor. The doctor was a certified World Rugby medical personnel.

The issue in all cases is that the Organiser of the Tournament SLSRFA does not appoint the MDD. Still, a doctor was nominated for the match by the host team. Therefore, MDD is an area that has to be clarified and included in the Tournament Manual, which will define the roles and responsibilities. In the first instance, there is a need for a Tournament Doctor who could educate the medical personnel and support the paramedical staff.

Arguments and challenges arise when the role, responsibility and appointment are not legitimate.

I was talking to the Regional Head of Asia Rugby Players Welfare in South Asia. Namith Sankalpana revealed six cases of severe head injuries during the last few weeks. So, the number of suspected head Injuries and other injuries during the previous five weeks is high. He emphasised the need for a Tournament Medical Doctor or a Medical Committee. The tournament committee needs to appoint as above as this will facilitate the role of the MDD.

The physio claims an alternative medical qualification the school may think is good enough to manage injuries. Yet when it comes to head injuries leading to concussion, the responsibility and process are different. For example, a twenty-one-day rest before return to play is not universal and has to be determined by tests and may even drop to two weeks or less. But in the case of
Under-18 and below, the mandatory requirement is a must.

Sankalpana explained SLSRFA needs to have a process for appointing the MDD as there must be legitimacy of the appointment. The process has to be in the Tournament Manual. The injuries could be life-threatening, limb-threatening or other damage that impacts the player and the game.

Regarding the recent spate of concussion injuries Ceylon Today understands that the Secretary of SLSRFA has sent a circular pointing to the procedure to follow and to allow a gradual return to play. Even late, the motive is good. But it happened in the middle of the Tournament. The inclusion should have occurred at the beginning of the Tournament and not in between. Though better late than never, Sankalpana explained why a more inclusive process is beneficial.

The stakeholders must be educated on the legality of the MDD as included in the Tournament Manual. The involvement starts with appointing a Tournament Doctor. The bigger picture is using sports medicine for injury prevention and correcting imbalances. However, SLSRFA has abdicated its responsibility by asking the host team to appoint the MDD. They are leaving room for challenges and appointments of medical doctors who may know concussions but are not conversant with the World Rugby Guidelines or the requirements of Sports Medicine.

The process of MDD starts with education. Therefore, we are educating the Match Day Doctors, the Referees and other Officials.

The Referee becomes an essential cog in the process. The ‘Recognise and Remove’ of head injuries (blue card) have a direct and indirect entry. Starting with that, the MDD will be on one side, whereas the Referee will be closer to the incident. The Referee will indicate to the MDD that there is a head impact and, in consultation with the MDD, recognise and remove it. The indirect is when there is a suspected head injury not directly indicated by the Referee but examined by the MDD because of visible damage and advises the Referee of the need for a recognise and removal. The Blue Card is a visual signal that there is a recognised head injury assessment. The sign is also an indication of the need for further documentation.

Sankalpana explained that at a recent meeting in Asia on player welfare, they decided that Head injury Assessment would extend over a five-year plan. The plan would involve Hong Kong, Malaysia and Korea, besides Japan. Sri Lanka is not in the five-year plan. In Sri Lanka HIA is practised by showing the blue card in tournaments conducted by SLSRFA.

We also see a red card player is allowed to be replaced by another after twenty minutes. The return is a trial in SANZAR but not approved by World Rugby as a global trial. Considering the spate of yellow cards, is it a good thing to allow a replacement for a red card player?

Those who believe the best rugby is fifteen vs fifteen prefer the 20 minutes. Still, some disagree entirely with the 20-minute card – especially if it is a deliberate act of foul play. For example, leading with the shoulder into a ruck, high tackle above the shoulder (not a ‘clash’ whilst attempting a tackle), or taking a player out in the air when in no position to catch the ball.

While World Rugby is pondering the trial, SLSRFA seems to have better advice and insight into player welfare. They have implemented clauses that need more profound thought and deliberation and involvement of Sri Lanka Rugby than hiding behind the curtain that they are responsible to the Ministry of Education. The referees, too, have implemented such changes as domestic regulations. Nevertheless, considering the recent spate of legal action in rugby, a degree of care is more important.

A rugby stalwart looking at the issues in a slanted view quipped, “This is what happens when choirmasters take to rugby administration.”

By Vimal Perera