IT’S the c-word Knights officials are undoubtedly sick of hearing.
VICTIMS: James McManus in his 150th NRL game, in 2015, after suffering a head knock against the Warriors. Sione Mata’utia is in the background.
Unfortunately for Newcastle management, concussion has become a massiveissue in rugby league and, fairly or unfairly, no other clubhas attracted more intense scrutiny than their own.
Part of this, of course, is because of the landmark law suit James McManus launched against the Knights in February, in which the former Newcastle and NSW Origin winger has levelled damning allegations that he suffered a career-ending, traumatic brain injury because he wasallowed to continue playing after repeated head knocks.
Then came the round-three incident in which the Knights were fined an unprecedented $50,000 for not removing fullback Brendan Elliot for a head-injury assessment after he was belted in a brutal high shot against South Sydney.
The theory that bad tidingsarrivein threes has been reinforced this week by the decision to stand down co-captain Sione Mata’utia after he suffered his third concussion of the season –and fifth in the space of 18 months –in last week’s loss to Melbourne.
All of which has combined to create a quandary for the Knights on a number of fronts, and I have a sneaking suspicion that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
Take the McManus case, for example.
I am certainly no legal expert, but everything I have read so far indicates he has some compelling evidence to back his version of events.
It was intriguing to note this week that his lawyers had won the right in the Supreme Court to subpoena the medical records of two former Newcastle teammates, Richie Fa’aoso and Robbie Rochow.
The Knights’ lawyers were unsuccessful in arguing that incidents involving Fa’aoso and Rochow were irrelevantbecause “there can be no legitimate forensic purpose in the material that is sought”.
What McManus is trying to establishis that not only was his health and welfare jeopardised by malpractice, but in the words of his lawyers: “His position is not uniqueand other players have been treated … in the way that he contends he was treatedand which, on his case, amounted to a breach of duty causing damage”.
In other words, they intendto provethat McManus did not suffer a one-off misfortune, but there was a trend of misguided decisions by people who “knew or ought to have known” better.
The reference to Fa’aoso, in particular, can presumably only strengthen his position.
I was at Brookvale Oval that day in 2011 and will never forget the image ofthe fearless forward staggering around, trying to regain his feet, after a head knock.
A day later, then Knights coach Rick Stone explained that Fa’aoso could look “untidy” after such a collision but usually recovered quickly.
He admitted, however: “For player safety, Richie probably should have come straight off on the weekend, there’s no doubt about that. If I had my time again, I would definitely do that. But sometimes you leave them out there to see if they can get back into the gameandyou don’t have to make an interchange.”
Within days of that incident, the mediabacklash prompted the NRL to tighten its concussion protocols.
Justice Ian Harrison ruled thatMcManus’s proposed subpoena was valid, because highlighting examples of how the Knights treated “similarly injured players” was of “potential significance”.
By all accounts, there is a long road ahead for McManus and his case may take several years to reach a conclusion. But I don’t recall him ever taking a backward step on the football field, and I can’t imagine he has any intention ofdoing sounder oath, as a witness.
The sad situation in which McManus finds himself is a reminder of the perils of playing a collision sport.
It also highlights why the Knights have opted for a safety-first approach and advisedMata’utia to stand down for the last two games of the season.
Mat’autia passed all his concussion protocols this week and was showing no ill-effects. But the problem is that nobody knows whether playing against Canberra on Friday night would have been a risk or not.
Even the experts, at a certain point, have to rely on guesswork.
One thing they do know, asclinical neuropsychologist DrAndrew Gardner states on his University of Newcastle website profile, is:“Once you have one concussion you are more likely to have another than someone who has never had one.”
Mata’utia has now hadfive concussions in 18 months, including three this season.
He is 21 years old and, in normal circumstances, should have at least a decade ahead of him in the NRL, enough time to become one of Newcastle’s greatest players.
But now there would appear some concern about his long-term prospects. Given that he is off contract at the end of next season and has reportedly started talking to the Knights about an extension, how much faith are they willing to invest?
Without wanting to wish any misfortune on Mata’utia, it is a sad reality that McManus is not the only rugby league player effectively battered into retirement. Nigel Plum, Liam Fulton and Josh Miller all gave the game away after recurring head knocks.
Regardless of whatever McManus is able to prove in the Supreme Court, it is pleasing to note that in the case of Mata’utia, the Knights are playing it safe.