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On Saturday, at the Langa Stadium in Bitterhout Street in Cape Town, the Busy Bee Rugby Club will take on the Blue Jets in the opening match of the Super League C division of the Western Province club rugby league.

It will be a day of marked significance for club rugby, one that could, and, indeed should be the widening of the scope and an exponential increase of focus on an injury that one bereaved parent of a dead teenage rugby player described as “rugby’s dirty secret”. Concussion.

It is the greatest danger in the sport. It is a killer. 

In 2011, 14-year-old Ben Robinson, playing for Carrickfergus Grammar, collapsed and later died after receiving repeated blows that caused “Second Impact Syndrome”, which Dr Willie Stewart, one of Britain's leading neuropathologists, says “is incredibly poorly understood”.

Young brains can swell after the initial impact to the head. “The first one causes the blood vessels to become a bit leaky. The second one causes them to become much worse, and that leads to brain swelling.”

Ben’s death was the first recorded diagnosis of Second Impact Syndrome in the UK — the first recorded, that is. How many more there have been before we may never know. Ben was tested three times for concussion by his coach during the match and allowed to play on despite showing classic symptoms of the trauma.

Ben need not have died. No rugby player should die for their sport and on Saturday, in Langa, Neuroflex, a provider of concussion care solutions, and the Groote Schuur Concussion Clinic will officially launch their relationship “to deliver pioneering concussion care to community rugby players. This collaboration marks a significant advancement in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of athletes”.

Those are their words and they are words worth repeating. Club rugby is harder and more brutal than it has ever been, no matter what the level. Players are bigger, quicker, tackles harder and more difficult to control and manage. One coach said years ago that rugby is not a contact sport, but a collision sport. Collisions cause injuries. They cause concussion, the silent killer, rugby’s dirty secret.

Talking about concussion in rugby and, indeed, all sport is akin to a gay male rugby player speaking about his sexuality. It is seen as the injury that dare not speak its name. Get up and get on with it. Be hard. Be tough. Shake it off. As the Guardian reported last year: “The sport industry’s treatment of concussion is like the tobacco industry’s defence of smoking, and the legal system is ‘stacked against players’ seeking redress for their injuries, an Australian senate inquiry has heard.”

Neuroflex and the Groote Schuur Concussion Clinic are seeking to stack the system for the welfare of the players.

“This partnership heralds a new era in concussion management, leveraging state-of-the-art virtual reality technology to precisely monitor eye and head movements. By eliminating guesswork, Neuroflex provides objective assessments to determine the presence of concussion, enabling tailored treatment plans for the individual,” Eddie Edwards of Neuroflex says.

“While most individuals recover from concussion symptoms within weeks, a significant portion continue to experience long-lasting effects that greatly impact their quality of life. Our partnership empowers community rugby players with access to gold standard care previously available only to professional athletes.

“It’s imperative to recognise that concussion protocols in community rugby remain unchanged: recognise and remove. Neuroflex supplements these protocols by establishing baseline measurements and aiding in rehabilitation post-injury. Even without a baseline, our technology utilises cohort norms for accurate assessment and treatment.”

Edwards says Neuroflex is hoping to broaden the scope of the rugby partnership, to “address various neurological conditions within communities”. It affects us all.

A study released last year by the New South Wales’ Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing said that “experiencing multiple concussions may be linked to worse brain function in later life”. 

“What we found was that ... you only really need to have three lifetime concussions to have some kind of cognitive deficits in the long term,” Dr Matthew Lennon said.

Three in lifetime. You only live once. You can only play rugby for so long. You can only take so many blows to the head. Ben Robinson’s mother, Karen, who held her only son as he lay unconscious on the field after that match on January 29, 2011, knows this. Andy Bull of the Guardian, wrote in 2013: 

“Karen’s house is silent, but the silence speaks. It tells its own story. Of a boy’s death and a family’s grief. It tells the story of a sport in denial about the risks being taken by those who play it, struggling to square the blood, guts and glory attitude of its amateur days with the brutal power of the professional game, and riven with disagreement about how to deal with its single most important issue — concussion.”

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