The contentious issue of head injuries in rugby league has again been brought into the spotlight following the tragic death of a teenager playing “the game he loved”. The grandson of former rugby great Tommy Raudonikis,  15-year-old Jake Kedzlie was playing in an Under-16s match on the North Coast of NSW, when his head collided with another player’s knee as he went in for a tackle. Collapsing to the ground and not regaining consciousness, Kedzlie was taken by ambulance to Coffs Harbour Hospital where he was pronounced brain-dead and sadly died days later after his life support was turned off. Raudonikis, the former Kangaroos Captain told the Sydney Morning Herald that the injury occurred during a “very standard tackle”, and labelled the incident a “freak accident”. As The Daily Telegraph reported, Raudonikis is “sticking by the game that made him a legend”, and pointed out that “these things can happen” in contact sport. As we reported in the March edition of #*it Happens, the media and research institutions have had a strong focus recently on the risk of head injuries during high contact sports. To prevent the catastrophic consequences of continuing to play with a concussion, the NRL recently modified its guidelines for the management of concussion, based on research conducted over a number of years in AFL and NRL. However Kedzlie’s death and the fact that it was inflicted during a ‘very standard’ tackle has highlighted the debate over whether more can be done to prevent head injuries in sports. President of NSW Schools Rugby Union, Colin Murray, reported to ABC News that the idea of weight restrictions that categorise players based on a weight range is “on the agenda at the moment”.

The convener of the most competitive level of high-school football, GPS, suggests that such a measure is likely to be soon introduced, as it would “allay fears” about the risks of collisions between smaller players and players of bigger, stronger stature.  On the topic of headgear as a protective measure against head injuries, Mr Murray stated that it can cause players to be ‘reckless’, as they feel protected and thus take more risks. On the contrary, head trauma specialist Dr Burns told the Central Western Daily that he believes headgear in league and union has a significant role in protecting players from head injury, but pointed out that ‘tackling’ is the main concern of head injuries in league. Headgear is not currently mandatory in rugby league, and only a “very small percentage” of GPS players reportedly wear it. Before further guidelines are implemented, Mr Murray suggested that there should be a focus on safer tackling practice and harsher sanctions for aggressive play.

As ABC News reports, despite Mr Raudonikis stating that rugby is a “safe game for the kids”, he admitted that his rugby career saw him “knocked out plenty of times, [with] broken cheek bones” and said that rugby is a “hard game played by hard men”. But the game is one of the most popular amongst schoolboys; on the same day that his grandson’s fatal injury occurred, another 15-year-old boy was transported to the Royal North Shore Hospital by helicopter after being knocked out and sustaining a back injury during a game. While the boy is in a stable condition, concussion Professor Dr Donnelly told The Daily Examiner that changing tackling rules and a “change in sporting culture” is vital for sports officials to “take concussion seriously”.