The NRL’s concussion issue was thrust back into the spotlight during St George Illawarra’s 16-10 win over Cronulla on Sunday night.
The Sharks could not overcame a poor first half as the Dragons downed their fierce local rivals by six points at Southern Cross Group Stadium but much of the focus surrounded two concussion incidents involving firstly Josh Dugan and then Wade Graham.
Dugan appeared to be knocked senseless after being hit with an accidental elbow from teammate Russell Packer as the pair attempted to tackle Sharks captain Paul Gallen in the ninth minute.
The Dragons fullback fell and lay face down on the ground before receiving treatment from trainers. Dugan was allowed to stay on the ground despite appearing concussed, and was not sent from the field to receive a concussion test.
That incident was followed by Sharks back-rower Wade Graham being removed from the field in the 17th minute for a concussion test, only to return before half-time. Graham was then forced off again with 23 minutes remaining and did not return, with Sharks coach Shane Flanagan saying Graham was not feeling well from his earlier knock and would be monitored tonight and during the week.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor said Dugan had suffered a jaw injury and not concussion.
“I think it was a jaw injury, not a head injury,” McGregor said.
“And that was the report I got back in the box. Because I’ve got Kurt Mann there so I’ve got a bloke to put on straight away but he said it was his jaw.
“I back the medical staff there. If it’s a jaw it’s a jaw, it’s nothing to do with concussion.”
But Flanagan said he was of the understanding that any player laying prone on the ground needed to undergo a head injury assessment.
“It was a bit strange. I thought if you laid motionless you had to come off,” he said.
“Wade came off the second time. He passed his concussion test. He just wasn’t feeling well so we brought him off. He wasn’t playing well, obviously. So we just made a decision to replace him.
“It’s a tough one. We’ve got a clear policy at the club here. If the doctor rules them out, they’re out.
“Duges might not have had any signs of concussion but he did lay prone there. He might have been stunned so we’re presuming he had concussion. We don’t know that. But the rule states if he lays prone he’s supposed to come off for a test.
Gallen said he told referee Ben Cummins that Dugan had to leave the field, but the referee told him it wasn’t his decision.
“It’s hard when he stops the game too when you’re on the front foot,” Gallen said.
“He stops the game and [Dugan] gets to stay on. That’s the hard thing.”
It was a poor first half from Cronulla, who made nine errors and only completed 11 or their 17 – or 65 per cent – of their sets in the first half.
The Dragons took the lead in the 18th minute through a Gareth Widdop penalty goal and extended their lead four minutes later through Euan Aitken.
Sharks halfback Chad Townsend was punished after his kick went out on the full, gifting the Dragons possession. The Dragons marched straight downfield and Aitken benefited from some quick thinking from Cameron McInnes, who rolled a perfect grubber into the in-goal from close range for Aitken to touch down.
Another Widdop penalty goal extended St George Illawarra’s lead to 8-0 before another Aitken try two minutes before half-time put the Dragons in front 14-0. The centre scooped up a forced Ricky Leutele pass to beat one tackle and streak 60 metres downfield to score.
Cronulla should have reduced the deficit on the stroke of half-time as Townsend looked to have scored after some good play down the left from Leutele and Edrick Lee. But Lee’s pass back inside to Townsend was ruled forward, though replays showed the pass looked to be thrown backwards initially before floating forward.
The Sharks again looked certain to post their first points seven minutes into the second half only for Dugan to make his second try-saving tackle of the match, this time on Leutele with help from Josh McCrone and Tyson Frizell.
Cronulla finally had their try with half an hour to play, with Luke Lewis getting on the end of a Townsend grubber. Edrick Lee then scored in the 57th minute from a parried Joseph Paulo cut out pass.
The Sharks went close again when Kurt Capewell was held up by a despairing effort from Joel Thompson and Widdop but, just as Cronulla looked to be coming home strong, Widdop was able to extend the Dragons’ lead to 16-10 with another penalty goal when Andrew Fifita was penalised.
The Sharks prop, after being tackled by McCrone, pushed the Dragons’ halfback twice in the face, giving up possession and two points.
The match wasn’t the best as a spectacle, with errors and penalties blighting the contest. St George Illawarra were good value for their victory though, as the gritty Dragons ground out the result to retain the Monty Porter Cup.
St George Illawarra Dragons 16 (Euan Aitken two tries. Gareth Widdop four goals)
Cronulla Sharks 10 (Luke Lewis, Edrick Lee tries. James Maloney goal)
at Southern Cross Group Stadium, Woolooware
Leader man of the match: Paul Vaughan (Dragons)
Sharks’ next three: Eels (away), Knights (home), Storm (away)
Dragons’ next three: Warriors (home), Tigers (away), Sea Eagles (away)