Super Rugby: Superpowers fighting to prevent head injuries with Heads Up!


Outside the U.S. in the years before the dawn of concussion protocol, South Africa’s knowledge of heading the ball during matches was extremely limited. Now they know the dangers of heading and they are determined to put things right, not only for the brain, but also because of the harm it does to a club’s reputation and, as a consequence, its tournament.

Brynjar Hanssen, the former Springbok star, who has been the brains behind the Heads Up! education project in this country, along with other former players, has been campaigning against heading ever since he returned to South Africa after playing in the 1984 World Cup quarterfinal, which Australia won. The game in the quarterfinal was played with Australia chasing down a tight score, with Hanssen, nicknamed the “Coal Train,” leading a tackle on Mark Ella. Ella, with a theatrical flourish, slipped his back leg and landed in the sidestep of Hanssen’s shoulder as he flew into the second level of the pitch. Ella apparently suffered a skull fracture and a spleen injury, and although doctors worked wonders to save his life, it lingered for years.

So it is surprising that the former Springbok giant insists that the experiment goes ahead – at least, temporarily. Danny Habana, the try-scoring wing, sent the first clear signal on Saturday when he added his name to the list of Springbok players who are against heading, by taking a knee after a try against the Southern Kings. “Personally, I wouldn’t have chosen that, but players haven’t been told what to do so I would have done the same,” Habana told The Times of London on Sunday. “I am here to help out and I just wanted to put that out there.”

Hanssen, 54, who wants to change the popular conception that rugby is a bloody, thuggy game, believes a strong message has to be sent to players. “My fear is that some people will say it’s cowardly and some will think it’s OK,” he said. “But in South Africa it is completely unacceptable to head the ball. If I was in a team of five or six players who had not learned not to head the ball, I’d send them on trial.”

Read the full story in The Times.


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