Former Saracens captain Alistair Hargreaves views the failure to sanction Northampton for their handling of George North’s latest head injury as a “cop-out” that “reeks of bureaucracy”.
A joint Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby investigation opted against charging Saints or their medical staff with misconduct for allowing North to resume playing, despite appearing to have been knocked unconscious in a league match on December 3.
Two months ago Hargreaves, Saracens’ 2015 Aviva Premiership-winning captain, was forced to retire from the game at the age of 30 having suffered five concussions in two years.
It is a subject on which the South African lock holds strong opinions and his immediate reaction following the publication of the investigation was to use Twitter to describe the findings as a “disgrace” that signalled a “depressing day for rugby”.
And, having reflected at greater length on an outcome that has received widespread condemnation, Hargreaves questions why the opportunity to send out a strong message on concussion management has been squandered.
“When I first heard about the review, I was angry,” Hargreaves told Press Association Sport “The fact North was allowed to go back on to the field is really disappointing and the fact there hasn’t been some sort of repercussion is bit of a cop-out, to be quite frank.
“It’s a step backwards. We have to hold each other accountable and when we do get things wrong, we need to voice our opinions. There needs to be accountability.
“In the review there wasn’t any hint of condemnation of the fact North was allowed to go back on to the field. There needed to be a statement that showed the public and players how seriously matters like this will be taken if the protocols aren’t followed. We’ve lost a chance to do that.
— Alistair Hargreaves (@Al_Hargreaves) December 22, 2016
“When the review panel came out with their nine guidelines for the future when this was a clear-cut case about a player with a history of concussion, it reeks of bureaucracy.”
Replays appeared to show that North had been knocked out following an aerial collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone at Welford Road, yet he passed a head injury assessment (HIA) and resumed playing.
Saints’ defence is that not all replay angles of the incident were available at the time of assessment and that the Wales wing denied any loss of consciousness, had immediate recall of events and stayed motionless due to concerns for his neck pain.
The Concussion Management Review Group found that, while North should have been removed from play, medical staff were not wilfully negligent.
“My frustration with it is that we should be protecting the health of the players, and also the reputation of the game,” Hargreaves said. “Concussion is such a pressing issue that it’s one thing to beat the drum of player welfare by saying, ‘We look after our people, they’re our priority’, it’s another to actually put that into action.
“A lot of positive steps have been taken in this area and there have been some really good examples of when concussion has been well managed this season. But this is an example of a very poorly-managed situation.
“I understand that there might not have been the right technical equipment in place for medical staff to review the incident, but it was an on-the-ball incident at the focal point of where the game was.
“It wasn’t like it was 50 metres away from where the ball was. Everyone was watching it and North is a player with a history of concussion.
“The question has to be asked, while being aware of the player’s concussion history, that if there is any doubt or slight hint of concussion, then did we really have his best interests at heart?”
Northampton have opted against picking North for Friday’s Aviva Premiership clash with Sale at Franklin’s Gardens.
Director of rugby Jim Mallinder revealed earlier this week that the 24-year-old British and Irish Lions wing was in contention to start, but had been omitted as crisis club Saints seek the victory that will ease the pressure heading into Christmas.
“George North has both trained with the squad and undergone a specialist review this week,” a statement released by Northampton read. “All parties have agreed that North continue with a full training schedule with the rest of the club’s players to ensure he is fully prepared for first team action.”
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