Let me cut to the chase. Your humble columnist bows to no man and few women when it comes to admiration for Newcastle Knights coach Wayne Bennett. Hugely accomplished in his field and prospering there for nigh on three decades, he’s a man of integrity and class, devoted to his family and as interested in his players and their lives as he is disinterested in what the media has to say about anything, least of all him. He is in short my kind of bloke.
So what I say now, Mr Bennett, I say sincerely, and not as an attack on you so much as one view you hold. See, your longevity in league, shows you to be, if not one step ahead of the pack, at least in step, but ...
But on concussion, Wayne, you’ve fallen behind. While the rest of the rugby league world – led by chief executive David Smith and the likes of Matthew Johns, Ian Roberts and Mark Geyer – are saying this issue is as serious as brain damage, because it is brain damage, you are saying the whole issue is “starting to get hysterical now. It’s starting to head in that direction, which is completely out of context with what’s really happening.”
In your interview, published in The Daily Telegraph last week, you lauded a particular program in the Hunter Valley as helping with concussion, as “it will give us evidence rather than theories without any scientific background to them at all.”
Sir, have you really been following what’s going on? The testing done on Ian Roberts by Deakin University for the Sunday Night program that I did for Channel Seven was not a “theory without any scientific background”.
It was absolutely scientific, developed over three decades by serious people with white coats and coke-bottle glasses and it showed brain damage.
Ditto Mario Fenech, who this week acknowledged he had also had testing done, and also has suffered brain damage. Geyer announced on Nine News on Wednesday night he was suffering from minor brain damage, including memory loss.
You’ve had, meanwhile, Johns, saying frankly: “There are many men of the '80s and '90s era who are showing worrying signs. There’s a brittleness in their handshake, a vacant look in their eyes, an inability to hold down a job, shake off addictions, remember friends and families.”
This is not hysteria, Wayne, it’s real and it's serious and as a matter of fact there is one particular league icon of the '90s well known to you, said to be in a dire state because of repeated concussions, whom I am sure you know about. But here is the real reason why I write.
You say, “I still believe the game is extremely safe.”
No, it’s not, Wayne – and nor are the other football codes – not when coaches like yourself play down concerns about concussion.
You say, “It’s safer than ever and the new rules are wonderful. A lot of clubs were already self-policing it before the latest guidelines were introduced ...”
I do hope, Wayne, you’re not including your own club in the claim of self-policing?
I refer you to this:
It is a bit of film which, to my regret, we had to leave out of the Sunday Night program because of time constraints. But it remains the most flagrant example I know of in recent times whereby a player is willfully put in danger, time and again, and the coaching staff were outrageously negligent in leaving him out there.
Look closely. Your man Robbie Rochow, your player, your employee takes the ball up in the 54th minute of a round 19 match against Penrith on July 21 last year, only to be hit by two Panthers. He goes down like a sack of spuds.
The commentator calls it correctly: “And now Robbie Rochow is out cold.” The replay shows the shoulder of the second tackler, Mose Masoe, making contact with Rochow’s chin – like a boxer taking a hit from a fist 10 times the usual size. The commentator says: “And Robbie Rochow looked like he was out before he hit the deck.” He was. Out cold.
Did you or your trainers pull him from the field, Wayne?
The commentator tells us what happens next. Rochow, incapable of making his own decisions, still “gets the thumbs up from the training staff.”
He plays on! Despite the known devastating dangers of second-impact syndrome, whereby someone who is already badly concussed gets hit a second time, the concussed Rochow is actually put back out there, understanding through his obvious fog he must take the ball and run hard at the huge players running hard at him.
Twelve minutes later, sure enough, he takes the ball up and is tackled by Panther hard man Lewis Brown, who brings a lightly swinging arm into play.
Down Rochow goes. Look at the video!
Sack of spuds.
Commentator: “He’s out to it.”
And he is. But is he pulled from the field by the Knights training staff? No.
He plays on!
Just what did he need to do before someone would say, “Mate, you are a far greater danger to yourself and your future mental health than anyone else in this mere football game, so take a break.”
And even after the smoke had cleared, he played the NEXT WEEK, and for many weeks thereafter!
Wayne, if anyone who knows anything about concussion doesn’t get hysterical about that, what can they get hysterical about? The game has changed, sir. Knowledge of concussion has increased exponentially.
And if the moral argument doesn’t persuade you, try the legal one.
If Rochow had been badly hurt by that second impact, let alone a third or fourth impact, he could legitimately sue the Knights and the NRL for millions, and would deserve every penny. I, frankly, think if he and any other modern player develops problems years from now – and they will, make no mistake – they can still legitimately sue for breach of duty of care.
Can you not see that, looking at that video? You are rightly famous for the personal care you show the players off the field, even long after their careers are over. So – and you can call me hysterical if you must – how could you let someone who is clearly concussed, TWICE IN 12 MINUTES, play on?