Rugby league's Andrew Heffernan opens upon concussion assessments

CONCUSSION CAMPAIGN: Former Group Nine player Andrew Heffernan, pictured outside his Canberra home last week is conducting research into concussion assessment. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
CONCUSSION CAMPAIGN: Former Group Nine player Andrew Heffernan, pictured outside his Canberra home last week is conducting research into concussion assessment. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

IT'S a quote which should set alarm bells ringing through rugby league headquarters.

Even more worrying is Andrew Heffernan's claim that he can't even recall completing a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) test before being permitted to return to the field wouldn't surprise most.

Heffernan's career is likely over at just 23 years of age after repeated head knocks, and the symptoms he's still suffering from as a result, forced him to pull the pin a year ago when starring for Hull Kingston Rovers.

It's was clear how passionate the Junee product is about helping the game continually improve its methods to combat arguably the biggest issue in the sport when we spoke last week.

"I've passed the current assessments and not even remembered I've done those assessments," Heffernan, who had five concussions in 12 months, said.

"It's only that certain doctors or trainers have seen something else in me - maybe I've rolled my eyes in the back of my head or I didn't look right - that they've pulled me out (of the game), not what I reported.

"To say the months of the year backwards or stand on one leg, it's not that hard. I could have 15 beer and still stand on one leg, it's not a great indication of whether I'm concussed.

"There's been instances all the time where people pass these things and you think 'how did they get through that?'"

Heffernan recently submitted a research paper through his Masters of Sports Rehabilitation studies with the University of Melbourne.

He hopes the publicity the issue has received recently, after two former NRL players were posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), will result in players from the grassroots up taking it more seriously.

Country Rugby League regional manager David Skinner admitted they're still trying to rid local competitions of the "old school mentality" where players are allowed to return to the field after copping head knocks.

Heffernan said independent doctors must be introduced at NRL games to ease the pressure on club doctors to get their stars back on the park.

This column doesn't suggest club doctors aren't taking the issue seriously, but independent doctors would remove the perceived notion it could be the case.

"I've seen firsthand where they've put pressure on them (club doctors) to get him back on, he's ready to go," Heffernan said.

"There's going to be human error in this anyway, but if they've got independent doctors looking at footage and reviewing those symptoms every single time, we've got to back their call."

Other sports, even those with far less contact than the football codes, are starting to follow suit.

The local netball competitions under the AFL Riverina banner have introduced compulsory pre-season testing this year, in line with their footballers, which is used if taken off with a head knock.

Athletes will always take the option of returning to the game if the decision is left to them. It's the competitiveness in them and fear of letting their teammates down that makes them tick.

But as knowledge of the potential long term consequences of concussion improves, hopefully the decision making of affected athletes does too.

It's better to miss a couple of extra weeks now than a few years of a career down the track.