Collision coach isn’t exactly the job title one would expect of someone whose career was brought to an end as a result of concussion. It would be akin to a stunt man deciding to retire and take up BASE jumping as a relaxing pastime. Then again they say reformed addicts make the best counsellors and on that logic who would be better placed to teach players how to take a hit than a man who knows the perils of the game. It was in that capacity, of collision coach, that Bernard Jackman would return to the professional game with Grenoble in France.
When the final whistle blew on Bernard Jackman’s professional playing career it would have been easy for him to walk away from the game but the title of his autobiography, Blue Blood, says it all, Bernard is a rugby man through and through. Speaking to Bernard about concussion, and indeed about rugby in general, his love and enthusiasm for the game is evident in every word. He knows what it is like to be a player at club, provincial and international level and to be a coach at school boys, club and elite level. He has seen both sides, he knows the risks and he knows the rewards.
Bernard retired at a time when concussions in rugby weren’t topical, they happened but people didn’t delve further into the issue but Bernard, understandably, wanted to delve deeper. It lead him to the NFL and the beginning of murmurings there of the long term effects of taking constant hits to the head, of changed men physically and mentally, of CTE. These were consequences no one thought about for contact sports, they may spring to mind for boxing but not others.
Asking Bernard about his own retirement I expect some level of bitterness or maybe perhaps regret that a game he loved had been ended so cruelly by injury. Bernard spent his career in the front row, taking and making the big hits, pressing forward with his head into the waiting shoulder of an opponent in the scrum, before the days when scrums had been “modified” with player welfare in mind. Is it little wonder a career of colliding ended in this manner. Despite my expectation Bernard is pragmatic in his recollection of his retirement. He didn’t pursue an insurance claim citing the “stigma” which, at the time, he felt would have been there if he had done so, the perception being that you were somehow “pulling a fast one”. When I liken head injuries to being the “new mental illness”, and by that I explain it is the condition no one wants to talk about, no one wants to admit to, an attitude of if you can’t see it then it doesn’t exist he agrees. “When you’ve your arm in a sling you don’t feel guilty on the sidelines”. He compares the open acknowledgment of being concussed, of needing to sit out a game or games because of concussion to showing weakness, we both know this is not the case but it is easy to see how a player could have that impression. The fear of being an “outcast” for a man or woman whose life revolves around a team game can be crippling and can breed a culture of mafiosa like omerta when it comes to concussion.
Our discussion moves to Jamie Cudmore and his pending litigation against ASM Clermont Auvergne. Bernard praises Jamie’s “bravery”, it isn’t easy speaking out especially when you continue to be actively involved in the game, with Jamie this being as a professional player initially and now as a coach. Bernard points to this as adding credence to Jamie’s claim and I readily agree. Here is a man who loves rugby. Similar to Bernard he has taken the hits, made the tackles all for the love of the game, pride in the many jerseys and enjoyment of others and he has been injured in doing so. Again, akin to Bernard, he has not walked away from the game in fact mirroring Bernard’s own retirement he has embraced a coaching career and no doubt will be consciously making an effort to ensure history does not repeat itself with his own crop of players.
Bernard became an ambassador for Acquired Brain Injury Ireland and has been vocal in his calls for reform in the game, for the need to be cognisant of head injuries. He admits his own failings as a player, his attempts and successes at “beating the system” when (under the former rules) a low enough base line score at the start of a season would allow you to pass tests. He would “buy time” in which to recompose himself and be able to pass a test somewhat re-orientated and return to or inevitably stay on the field. The effects of concussion being initially only momentary like the blows which caused them. It was after the games when the adrenaline went and team mates were alongside you, fans cheering, coaches yelling instructions, when you had the time to catch your breath and think about it that you noticed you may not be as quick to run into the next tackle in training or to recall the call. I acknowledge my appreciation of the fact players will always want to play, if that wasn’t in their mentality then they wouldn’t be the elite. They need that edge, that grit, that determined resilience otherwise but someone needs to call time, someone needs to take it out of their hands surely and Bernard agrees. Towards the end of his own career he knew he “couldn’t keep taking the hits” constantly and whilst in games, presumably with adrenaline racing and a game mentality firmly in place he would never shy away from any tackle, he knew in training how to better position himself in a scrum or how to tackle to minimise the impact to his head. He knew something was wrong and the sense of self-preservation was kicking in.
I recalled a podcast some years ago when in the wake of a Top 14 player Florian Flitz returning to the field bloodied and concussed Bernard, in almost exasperated tones, calling for the end to the farcical use of a “head bin”. He called for independent doctors to take the lead whilst opining that the French player union, which was a force to be reckoned with in itself, may strike if the matter wasn’t dealt with. At the time listening to his interview my own instant thoughts were that with the French love of a strike it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Needless to say no such strike ever materialised.
I pose the question what, if anything, has changed in Top 14 during Bernard’s time coaching. He points to Jamie’s litigation as somewhat of a turning point with the publicity it drew resulting in all Top 14 medics being summoned by La Ligue Nationale de Rugby (“LNR”) to reinforce the message that protocols needed to be adhered to. Bernard reports he was fortunate at Grenoble to have a young and, as he puts it “eagle eyed” doctor and medical team who were proactive in their approach resulting in training sessions being interrupted by the ebb and flow of players on and off the field for HIAs. He admits this may be partly attributable to youthful exuberance or fear of risking the wrath of the LNR where doctors longer in the tooth may not be so quick to change the practices and habits of a lifetime. Bernard certainly isn’t backward about coming forward, to use an appropriately Irish phase, and knows that doctors will look the other way and decisions can sway on the day when a player in needed on the field, when a coach is calling for his return, when the player insists he is fit to return. Doctors differ and patients die may be too stark a comment but perhaps it is the most appropriate.
What would he do if he was in charge? His answer is simple, he would “take it out of players’ hands”, when I throw in (a very apt analogy when referring to anything dealing with a man who spent his like as a hooker) the suggestion of the blue card system being trialled in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa he is particularly receptive to the idea. He maligns the fact that World Rugby “don’t have a proper handle” on the issue.
As I enquire as to the difference in attitudes to head injury at elite level between Ireland and France Bernard points to the IRFU central contraction of all at provincial level as a cause in the disparity of treatment. He explains that in Ireland if the Irish management are attending a provincial game, which they invariably are, and see a player with a suspected head injury remain on the field they will understandably be on a collision course of their own with the IRFU who in turn will tackle the issue with the provincial set up. In contrast the league in France is a commercial entity, they are answerable to the Union but rules without enforcement are simply empty words.
When we discuss the recent Lions Tour Bernard has yet to watch the final test owing to his relocation, such is the life of a professional sports coach. He is aware of the incident involving Alun Wynn Jones and I give my untrained musings on it. He will watch the game when schedule permits, I expect he will reach a similar conclusion as mine.
Would he want his own children to play the game? Yes, absolutely with the caveat that as a parent you should be aware of and fully informed of the risks and then make the decision. . He agrees with me that children will emulate what they see at the top, so if they see players at elite level, the Wynn Jones’ of this world, return to the field when some would question the appropriateness of the return that is what they will replicate.
Bernard recently participated in a debate held in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin on the subject of head injury. Bernard was joined on the panel by a representative from the IRFU and Dr Bennet Omalu, the man who quite literally brought concussion to the big screen and the main stage in terms of sports issues. Bernard, unsurprisingly, was passionate in his defence of a game he loves and while he clearly respects the immense work of Dr Omalu he disagrees with his overly cautious approach, “he doesn’t let his kids go on a trampoline”. With everything in life there is a risk but without risk there is no reward and the rewards of sports to my mind, and clearly Bernard’s, are worth the chance but what needs to change is the level of risk being taken.
We both agree that the changes need to come from the top and having listened to the enthusiasm and passion with which Bernard speaks about all things rugby, and indeed sports related, I wonder if perhaps he may person to someday be the person ensuring the changes are made. One thing is clear Grenoble’s loss in most definitely the Dragon’s gain and hopefully someday he will return to the emerald isle to write the sequel to Blue Bloods with the Leinster team.
County Dublin, Ireland, Eoghan P. Clear Solicitors