Scotland captain John Barclay believes the new beefed-up regulations regarding concussion in rugby remain flawed after admitting he had been judged fit to play while knowing himself that he wasn’t.
The Scarlets flanker, who is expected to lead his country again when the autumn Test series kicks off against Samoa at BT Murrayfield on Saturday, has just returned from a six-week lay-off after receiving a head knock in a match against Edinburgh in late September.
Concussion has become a hot topic in rugby, and contact sport more widely in recent years, and the game’s governing body has brought in strict new regulations after years of study and campaigning, including a significant input by long-serving Scotland and Lions doctor James Robson.
Players who receive head knocks in play are now given Head Injury Assessments (HIAs) to determine if they are able to go back on the field. If not, they will then be subject to concussion return to play protocols, undergoing a number of tests to determine their fitness for subsequent games.
Barclay was knocked unconscious when his head collided with the hip of Edinburgh flanker and Scotland squad-mate Magnus Bradbury. He felt fine for a couple of days afterwards before suffering migraines and light headedness, leading to a prolonged period on the sidelines before making his comeback for Scarlets against Benetton at the weekend.
The 31-year-old revealed that he could have come back sooner but didn’t feel right. As an elder statesman of the game it was a simple decision, but suggested such an honest approach may not be so forthcoming from a younger player fighting to establish themselves.
“I was never going to come back and play. I passed the cognitive function test. Technically I could have said I felt fine. To me that is where the system is so flawed,” said Barclay at Scotland’s Oriam training base yesterday.
“If I had said I felt fine I could have played because I had passed all the online tests and the memory tests and stuff, but I still did not feel right so that is obviously where there is room for improvement in the assessment of players.
“Everybody knows not to. It is just whether you chose not to. Where you are in your career. I think I am reasonably smart enough not to do that. I have played a bit of rugby. I have two kids and my wife is pregnant.
“I am not going to risk long-term ill health or do something stupid just so I was fit to play in a rugby match, whether it was playing for Scarlets or Scotland. I was not going to risk that. That is just my approach but I know some of the other guys may not have done the same.”
Barclay described his time off as “a tricky few weeks” but is now feeling fine and relishing captaining his country again, with Greig Laidlaw out due to an ankle break.
“I had some migraines and my main issue was a sort of light-headedness which wouldn’t go away,” continued the former Glasgow Warrior. “Initially some sensitivity to noise and sort of irritability. My balance was okay, I was just light-headed.”
Barclay said that the complexity of the brain means it is always going to be a problematic issue to deal with and that there were limits even to the understanding of experienced specialist consultants in the field.
“I went for brain scans and stuff which sounds quite extreme and scary, but they found that everything’s okay, which obviously puts your mind at rest to some degree and they just run a whole host more tests,” he said.
“The stuff we do is great as a preliminary, but the stuff he’s doing is way more detailed and takes hours to do. He admits the stuff he’s doing isn’t perfect. He’s trying to find stuff that’s going to give them a better idea of how to treat these things. So he just said your cognitive function’s good, your brain is actually okay, so you just need to start trying to get back into things.
“That’s the thing. He’s a professor and he still doesn’t really know.”
Last week Scotland assistant coach Matt Taylor said that Barclay could well be the man who continues as skipper and leads the team to the Japan World Cup in 2019. “I’d love to,” is the response of a man who endured a long stretch in the wilderness before re-establishing himself in the Scotland set-up.
With his Scarlets contract up at the end of the season there has been speculation linking him to a return north of the border to Edinburgh.
“There is a chance of anything,” he said. “I am playing at Scarlets at the moment and I have managed to get back into the Scotland fold. I am captain of Scotland at the moment and playing for Scarlets. There is a bit of speculation at the moment, but I don’t know what else to tell you to be honest.”
Barclay has enjoyed reuniting with his old mate Kelly Brown, who has been in camp lending some coaching input this week.
“It’s great ... we’re just waiting for Johnnie Beattie to show up,” said Barclay with a smile, referring to the old ‘Killer Bs’ back-row trio for Scotland and Glasgow.
“No it’s good, obviously Kelly’s one of my good friends. There are a handful of guys I keep in contact with regularly and he’s one of those guys I would still phone to catch up and see how everyone is. It’s great to catch up with him and see him more regularly.”