It is less than a fortnight since this correspondent asked the Lions and England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie if charging head first into human brick walls for a living ever worried him. On the eve of the Gallagher Premiership final his response was characteristically gung-ho. “It’s not actually as bad as you think,” he replied. “I haven’t got too much up top so there’s no sense to be knocked out of me. I love being the go-to guy.”
Naturally enough, his upbeat words came ricocheting back to me as he lay on the Twickenham turf three days’ later, knocked out cold having mistimed an attempted tackle on Harlequins’ Dino Lamb. As the medics huddled over him and swiftly summoned a stretcher, the issue of whether he would still fly out with the Lions to South Africa the next day felt utterly unimportant. All that mattered, as ever, was his immediate condition and subsequent welfare.
Shortly after the game concluded, Rob Baxter gave a reassuring update. His player was up and about, walking and talking, and would be absolutely fine to meet up with the Lions. Baxter, as he usually is, was spot on. And, sure enough, seven days later, Cowan-Dickie could be found hurtling around Ellis Park, making his debut for the Lions, as a second-half replacement for his England teammate Jamie George.
Not everyone on social media was minded to cheer from the rooftops. According to the former England scrum-half Kyran Bracken it was “the most ridiculous decision in my lifetime of rugby” and “a stain on our great game”. Knowing what we do about traumatic brain injuries nowadays and the many former players reporting the grim symptoms of early onset dementia, the concern expressed by Bracken and others was entirely understandable.
There was only one snag. According to the official return-to-play protocols, there was absolutely no issue with Cowan-Dickie’s rapid comeback. For better or worse, the redoubtable Cornishman has also subsequently been picked to start the Lions’ first midweek fixture against the Sharks.
Small wonder that Warren Gatland, his head coach, was asked again on Monday whether a sufficient duty of care was being shown to the Exeter man. If in doubt sit them out etc? He reiterated what he had said on Saturday night, that every box of the recommended return-to-play timetable had been ticked. “There are strict protocols that our medical team follow that World Rugby have put in place and players have to go through. We had a world-renowned specialist in concussion look at Luke and he cleared him as well. He’s gone through all the protocols.”
Gatland then went further, suggesting not everyone proffering an opinion was an expert. “People who don’t really know a lot about concussion … every player is affected differently. Sometimes a player can be knocked out and recover and be perfect in a very short time. Other players might get a very slight knock and it can take them a while to recover. There is no similarity in terms of what different players go through with their cases. All I can say is that I follow the advice of the medical team 100%. I can tell you there’s definitely no pressure from the rugby side. If he’s not right then he wouldn’t have been selected. People who are a lot more educated than me are making these decisions.”
Case closed, seemingly. Or perhaps not. Because how can the game proceed with a clear conscience when such a discrepancy exists between those who insist everything is fine and dandy and those who are adamant it absolutely isn’t? Most, if not all, neurologists would suggest a heavy knockout such as the one Cowan-Dickie suffered should result in the victim being stood down for 28 days as a precaution. Under most jurisdictions professional boxers are barred from climbing back into the competitive ring after being knocked out cold for anywhere between 30 and 90 days.
Admittedly Cowan-Dickie is not your average human being. Watch him play and “superhuman” is no exaggeration. It was he who popularised the revived trend of almost suicidal tap-and-go charges close to the line: stopping him from five metres out is among rugby’s least enviable jobs. No criticism, either, should ever be levelled at any rugby player for wanting to play rugby. That is what they do and, in many cases, have always dreamed of doing. No one selected for a Lions tour ever wants to be tapped on the shoulder and told that, actually, they should stand down.
But this is not really a piece about Cowan-Dickie or the Lions or any individual medic. It is a piece about how rugby union as a sport wants to be perceived in years to come. Of course concussions vary in seriousness. Of course different people have different brains. But has everyone forgotten the testimony of Steve Thompson, Cowan-Dickie’s predecessor as a combative, all-action hooker for England and the Lions? The estimable “Thommo” won a Rugby World Cup in 2003 but, as he revealed in his haunting interview with my Guardian colleague Andy Bull, he can no longer recall the details. “You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it.”
He, and the other players who have launched legal action against the rugby authorities, are not making up their health issues. There are, by all accounts, plenty more of them out there. Clearly if the authorities were to admit now that their existing concussion protocols are badly flawed, the compensation claims will flow across the land like molten lava.
But if it were to emerge, in five, 10 or 20 years, that people could and should have done more to protect today’s professionals, how will that make us all feel about ourselves? What was it that Cowan-Dickie said the other week about hurtling headlong into contact? “It’s not actually as bad as you think.” Rugby’s increasing dilemma is that no one can be completely certain about that.