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ARU should lead way on concussion, says Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie

Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie.

Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie. Photo: Getty Images

Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie says the ARU should be "leading the way in what's right and wrong" on the controversial issue of concussion.

McKenzie welcomed the ARU's appointment of national concussion specialist Ryan Kohler who, among his other duties, is acting as the Wallabies' new dedicated match-day concussion doctor for the three-Test series against France.

McKenzie, who said he was "wonderfully naive" to the risks associated with rugby and other contact sports during his 51-Test career, said the ARU had reacted responsibly to a worldwide issue.

"Once you determine something is important, you have to make it important," McKenzie said.

"Those [International Rugby Board] parameters have been developed over a period of time and they haven't been universally accepted, but they will.

"There are all sorts of issues in play, like welfare and liability. Welfare should be the priority – you have to make sure people who play your sport, play it because they enjoy it ... but we're not in the business of making life difficult for people later on."

The appointment of Kohler coincided with the ARU increasing its in-game "head bin" protocol from five to 10 minutes, to meet IRB recommendations. It brings Australia into line with widely-accepted best practice on concussion.

It comes as the sport, internationally, lurches from disaster to disaster in the public eye.

In the past month, rugby has been rocked by damaging footage of Toulouse player Florian Fritz being urged back out to play after being knocked out; the forced retirement of two-time Super Rugby-winning captain Craig Clarke and, most recently, Shontayne Hape's shocking first-person account of pushing on through a career littered with serious head injuries.

The ARU has largely managed the issue well, apart from the universally criticised incident involving Test breakaway George Smith in the third Test against the British and Irish Lions last year.

Smith was knocked out within the first few minutes of the series decider and had to be helped off the field, but returned to play after somehow passing the head bin tests.

The incident prompted the IRB to revise its protocols and rule that a player could not return to the field of play under any circumstances if they lost consciousness.

More recently, the IRB commissioned research showing its pitch-side concussion assessment tool, known as PCSA or "head bin", had led to a drop in the number of players diagnosed with concussion after being allowed to play on.

The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that before the head bin trial, 56 per cent of players assessed by doctors but left on the field were later found to have been concussed. That dropped to 13 per cent with the introduction of the head bin.

The IRB has since modified the protocol, beefing up the memory and balance tests and doubling the time available to medics to make a decision. 

McKenzie was a tighthead prop for Australia in the 1990s, when rugby was still an amateur sport.

"[Concussion] had no profile at all, it was a very amateur environment, we played for fun and travel," he said.

"There wasn't a lot of sport science in those days. Syndesmosis, shoulder reconstructions – they didn't exist, you just got out there and kept playing. My generation carry a bit more battle damage but we were wonderfully naive.

"Things move on and now there's a lot more games at a higher level. [The ARU and Wallabies] are in the business of inspiration, and part of inspiration is leading the way in what's right and wrong."

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