Former St Helens forward James Graham was speaking as part of a roundtable also involving Stevie Ward, Tom Johnstone, Tyrone McCarthy and Greg Burke; watch the discussion throughout February 2 on Sky Sports News
Last Updated: 02/02/23 7:10am
James Graham believes a change of culture in rugby league is needed if the sport is to get to grips with the issues around concussion.
The former Great Britain and England international forward suffered over 100 concussions in his 17-year playing career on these shores and in Australia, and since retiring has become heavily involved in campaigning to raise awareness around head injuries and their long-term effects.
Speaking as part of a Sky Sports News roundtable discussion with four other current and ex-players, Graham revealed how an MRI scan had shown up a reduction in volume of one area of his brain and concerning dark spots on one side which doctors believe were caused by repeated concussions, and wants change to be led by those playing and coaching the sport.
“We have a huge emphasis on winning and performance culture, we don’t have an emphasis on health culture,” Graham said. “It’s just perhaps tipping the scales slightly in favour of the health aspect of sport.
“Concussion is on the mind of anyone involved in the sport at the moment. It’s all very well and good the best neurologists in the world to tell us about the dangers of concussion and continuing to play.
“But from a players’ and athletes’ perspective, we know the pressures that come with it and the sacrifices we’ve made.
“It’s about bringing many stakeholders of the game along with us.”
Led by Stevie Ward, the former Leeds Rhinos captain who was forced to retire aged 27 due to the effects of concussion, the discussion included former Ireland international Tyrone McCarthy, current Catalans Dragons winger Tom Johnstone and Greg Burke, now playing for Betfred Championship side Barrow Raiders, as well as Graham.
Prop Burke, who represented hometown club Wigan Warriors, Widnes Vikings and Salford Red Devils in the Betfred Super League, recalled how concussion was not seen as something to be that concerned about during the early part of his career.
“We were taught to go hell for leather,” Burke said. “I got a pretty bad concussion where I was snoring on the floor, and I came off and was having a conversation with the lads and must have asked them [something] 15 times in 15 minutes.
“I couldn’t remember a thing and they were all laughing at me, and I didn’t know what they were laughing at.
“Looking back with an older head on me, that wasn’t a good thing for a young lad to be going through because I was just going through it and everyone was laughing about it, and it’s the culture of the game where you get yourself as right and do it for your team-mates.
“But if as team-mates we can say ‘I know you’re tough, but I know you’re not right and not shirking it, just look after yourself – you’re better for us when you’re at the top of your game’.”
McCarthy is now academy coach with his old club Warrington Wolves, having been forced to bring the curtain down on his playing days due to a concussion suffered while playing for Leigh Centurions during the 2021 season.
As one of those now responsible for the next generation of players, the 34-year-old is aware of the need to ensure an environment is created where concussions are taken seriously and that players can be honest about whether they have suffered head injuries.
“That’s probably the ultimate challenge going forward,” McCarthy said. “Speaking about young kids, they need to have an understanding whether they’re hurt or injured, but with concussion that’s probably different.
“At Warrington, we have medical staff there every session to make sure they’re watching all of the contacts and pulling players out when they need to be.
“We need to be building these environments where players feel okay to say ‘I don’t feel right’, and as coaches we’ve got to trust what the players are saying.”
Head injuries remains a huge issue for both codes of rugby, with recent research showing experiencing three or more concussions is linked to worsened brain function in later life, and Ward hopes such discussions will lead to a positive outcome.
“This, for me, is a starting point,” Ward said. “Where we get an open conversation going and get to make headway towards the best version of the game we love.”
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