‘The hard part is getting players to be more honest’: Belfast sports scientist Brianna Mulhern on the challenges of tackling concussion

Belfast woman Brianna Mulhern fell in love with rugby league during her years spent with Hull KR
Belfast woman Brianna Mulhern fell in love with rugby league during her years spent with Hull KR

IT is not even four weeks since Brianna Mulhern touched down in Perpignan after a manic couple of months that led to her swapping the north of England for the south of France, but thoughts are never too far from the oval ball.

“I’m trying to find a team here,” says the Belfast woman, “the season doesn’t start until March/April so I have a bit of time. It has all been a bit crazy…”

The home of Catalan Dragons isn’t too far away in this rugby-mad part of the country, with opportunities to continue her playing career sure to come once the dust settles.

But, whatever she chooses to do in the next 12 months, it will play second fiddle to the completion of her PhD in concussion biomechanics within rugby.

This is where study and sporting endeavour came together, after Mulhern landed a sports scientist role with Rugby League club Hull KR as part of her research through Ulster University’s School of Sport.

“Basketball is originally my sport, but when I first moved to Hull a couple of years ago there was no basketball, and I really wanted a team sport, so I ended up playing for the women’s team at Hull KR.

“I loved the fact it was a bit rougher. As well as basketball, I also played Gaelic football with Parnell’s when I was living in Dublin, so I had a bit of an idea of what it might be like. With rugby, though, you really had to think a lot more than the other sports I’d played before…”

The long-term goal, once her PhD is completed is to set up “some form of consultation with teams about looking after athletes’ brain health”, though that could also extend into the worlds of individual sports like boxing, MMA and even Formula One.

But the last two years with Rovers have been an eye-opener, at a time when the focus on concussion within rugby union and rugby league has never been more intense.

Last August 125 former rugby league players - who have been diagnosed with brain injuries they claim resulted from their playing days – took legal action against the Rugby Football League, the British Amateur Rugby League Association and International Rugby League.

Indeed, the 2023 season saw 80 concussions in Super League, making it the most common injury for a rugby league player. It used to be a hamstring injury.

Mulhern’s research is not so much looking at the effects of concussion later down the line, but why it happens, and what happens to the brain as a consequence.

It has also included the use of state-of-the-art mouthguards that monitor the effects of impacts on players during matches and training, potentially allowing clubs to identify when a player is at risk of concussion.

“I want to be able to get to the point where I can see in real-time when a concussion has occurred and the magnitude of that concussion,” she said.

“The whole point behind these instrumental mouthguards is to try and understand the mechanism of concussion, what is happening either when a player is entering a tackle event or a concussion event - what exactly is happening with the head in a game of rugby.”

Donegal's Ryan McHugh, pictured at the Ulster SFC final launch in Fermanagh's Lough Erne Hotel on Thursday, has suffered two concussions in the past year. Picture by John Merry
Donegal's Ryan McHugh has spoken about concussions suffered in the past. Picture by John Merry

Along similar lines, though, a major part of aiding future prevention requires a process of evolution involving sporting bodies, coaches and players.

In the professional environment - as well as the amateur world of the GAA - the pressure to perform, to retain a starting spot and to get results can muddy the waters where concussion protocols are not clear enough.

Education, therefore, remains key as the discussion surrounding concussion and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) has grown louder over time, with the hope that current players will ensure they are in possession of all the relevant information before taking the field.

“Every sport is on its own timeline with this sort of stuff,” said Mulhern.

“Soccer, for example, is quite far behind when it comes to even a head assessment, then you look at rugby union and rugby league and they have things in place like head assessments, removing a player from the field if they are suspected to have a concussion.

“Of course a lot of players don’t want to let their team down - they feel as though even them coming off for a 10 minute assessment is making a massive impact on the game. The hard part is getting players to be more honest.

“But the more sporting bodies are educating players, the more honest the players are becoming when it comes to what is happening on the field.”

And the increased media attention, and examples of high-profile former players that continue to come to light, is also having an impact on the thinking of the current generation.

“There is probably a worry when current they think about after their career, though some players would surprise you - it doesn’t even cross their mind.

“Talking to players and coaches who have played in the past, they would tell you how it was when they played compared to how it’s managed now, and it feels like a massive difference even when it comes to how we’re diagnosing concussion, never mind just speaking about it.

“It’s much less of a taboo subject now - hopefully we’re moving in the right direction.”