Ponga’s neurologist backs NRL protocols and puts star’s concussion into context

The neurologist treating Kalyn Ponga has welcomed the NRL’s new concussion protocols and says that other players who have had as many head knocks as the Newcastle star have managed to successfully return to the game.

The NRL has implemented a mandatory 11-day stand-down period for any player diagnosed with a brain injury to safeguard participants, just as the AFL prepares to face a class action over its handling of concussions.

One of the NRL’s biggest stars, Ponga faces an uncertain future after suffering a fourth concussion in 10 months during last weekend’s win over Wests Tigers. Knights coach Adam O’Brien wouldn’t rule out the possibility of shifting Ponga from five-eighth back to fullback to take him out of the front line of defence, but said the immediate focus was on Ponga’s health and working out a potential return date.

One of the specialists with that task is Dr Chris Levi, a neurologist who has treated Boyd Cordner, Tim Glasby and many other NRL players after repeated concussions.

Levi didn’t want to speak specifically about Ponga’s situation, citing doctor-patient confidentiality. However, he said that players who have typically had the same number of concussions as Ponga have safely returned to the sport.

“During the recent era, there have been instances of players who have rehabilitated well, have made some adjustments and have then had a relatively clean and clear subsequent season or two or three beyond a bad run,” Levi told the Herald.

Kalyn Ponga suffered another heavy head knock.Credit:Getty

“I think it is premature to be speculating about such things in the situation of any player. There are a number of players in the competition who have been in similar situations over the past four or five years.

“It’s just that Kalyn is a very high-profile person and obviously [the media] and fans are interested in it. I think you need to keep it in proportion.

“Having said that, I think there’s a need to be vigilant and careful and involve Kalyn in all decisions. That’s the situation.”

Levi supported the NRL’s strengthening of concussion protocols.

“I’ve always been an advocate for a conservative policy platform,” Levi said. “I support that initiative, absolutely. It’s sensible because the tools we have to assess player status have limitations in terms of the accuracy around recovery. There’s a lot of individual variability in recovery.

“It’s also reliant on patient symptom scores, which is fine when the players are frank and honest. However, symptom scores can at times be under-expressed if there are situations where the players don’t provide the full spectrum of their feelings, even in a private, supportive consultation.

“I think you need to be a bit more conservative and I think this is a good step.”

Under the new protocols, clubs will be able to apply for an exemption from the mandatory rest period under what the NRL terms “exceptional circumstances.” To do so, they will need a clearance from one of the game’s independent specialists, of which Levi is one.

Levi predicted the exemptions would be “very, very uncommon.”

“In my experience, the Bunker and the club doctors get it right 99-plus per cent of the time,” Levi said. “It’s part of the role to provide an independent assessment, but I would think it very unlikely that I would personally be recommending an expedited return to play now that this is a policy.

“I think it’s a sound policy and also takes a bit of pressure off the club doctors, who are often in a challenging situation. I think it’s absolutely the right move.”

Speaking during his weekly press conference, Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien defended the decision to shift Ponga to the halves, despite the increased concussion risk.

“He really wanted to go up there,” O’Brien said. “His want to grab ownership of this team is probably paramount. That’s probably how we got to it.

“Certainly Kalyn himself was excited by playing that position … [His recovery is] in the hands of some pretty smart people now. We’ll be governed by that.”

Tigers prop David Klemmer said he felt for Ponga when he witnessed his former Knights teammate get concussed again.

“I was a bit shocked, it was scary for the young bloke,” Klemmer said. “I hope they do the right thing, he listens to the right people and not the outside noise. Listen to the doctor or whoever is the right person to talk to about his immediate future.

“It’s pretty scary man, he’s one of the faces of the game. He obviously can’t see it now, but the Kalyn in years to come will probably thank him for what ends up happening. I just hope he’s alright.”

The NRL has no immediate plans to have a gap week between the preliminary final and the grand final, a break that could provide concussed players a way of returning for the game’s showpiece event. Levi felt a week off could be beneficial.

“I would be supportive of that, I see that as not a bad idea,” Levi said. “As someone who watches the game, it would be very disappointing if you’re a fan of a club and a key player who often makes a difference to whether your team succeed or not is unable to play because of a concussion.

“From the perspective of the player and the fan, it would be a sad day if Tommy Turbo [Tom Trbojevic] or Latrell Mitchell couldn’t play [due to concussion].”

With AAP

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