A SPORT already reeling from the financial impact of Covid is now in danger of being swamped by a new existential threat with news that eight former professional players are gearing up to spearhead a legal challenge against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union in England and the Welsh Rugby Union, in relation to their early onset dementia diagnoses.
The group – which includes former England hooker Steve Thompson, now aged 42 – believe that the governing bodies failed to provide adequate protection from the risks caused by concussions
Thompson says he can’t remember the day he helped his country lift the 2003 World Cup, that he often forgets his wife’s name, suffers panic attacks and is prone to mood swings.
Former Wales flanker Alix Popham, now aged 41, and former England flanker Michael Lipman, now aged 40, are also involved.
All eight former players are under the age of 45 and have received the same diagnosis of dementia with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), for which the only known cause is repeated blows to the head. CTE can be diagnosed for certain only by a post-mortem dissection of the brain.
Richard Boardman of Rylands Law, representing the group, has claimed that there is a “ticking time-bomb” of retired players who are developing symptoms as they reach their 40s and 50s, and says that he anticipates the first eight players will be the test cases in a potential group litigation order.
Boardman also stated that he has already been in touch with more than 100 former players from union and league who are reporting symptoms.
The players plan to seek compensation for the neurological damage suffered, the impact on their employment prospects, and the cost of care they and their families will likely incur in the years to come.
They have also produced a list of “15 commandments” to make the game safer, which includes a limit to the amount of contact in training, a reduction in tactical substitutions, and measures to improve the detection of brain injury.
A similar class action lawsuit taken by 4,500 former American football players in 2012 against the NFL resulted in pay-out of nearly $1 billion in compensation.
The Scottish Rugby Union does not appear to be in the firing-line at the moment but will be keeping an anxious eye on how the situation progresses because although Murrayfield takes great pride in its approach to player welfare, concussion is a cross-border issue and nobody in the game is immune from its threat.
Glasgow Warriors head coach Danny Wilson said he could not speak about the case in question but stressed that he thinks the sport is safer now than it has ever been from the dangers of concussion.
“What we see nowadays is a far more detailed approach to it which can be a lot better and therefore much safer for player welfare,” he said. “You see in games now that when players go off for concussion they rarely come back on because it is very strict in terms of the video footage and the criteria to come back on.
“Some feel fine after the game but can’t pass the test therefore can’t come back until they do, [which could be several weeks].
“Those things were not in place in the past … when you got a bang on the head you probably got on with it and probably trained the next week. Now it is far stricter for the better.”
Wilson added that he is confident that Scottish Rugby is doing everything in its power to provide players with the best protection available. “Medically, statistically, I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that we stick rigidly to the protocols here,” he stressed.
“We test players regularly in terms of their baseline, and any symptoms whatsoever which can be linked to a head injury is assessed straight away. So, I think it is way better than it has ever been and I think the game generally is working towards making it as safe as possible.”
Wilson added that it is not just through improved monitoring and willingness to sit players out that the game has got safer. Law changes have also reduced risk.
“Tackle height has been one way of trying to reduce concussions,” he explained. “We have seen tackle height come down a fair amount.
“Technically coaching younger guys to approach contact in the right way will also help reduce those situations and I think that’s hey we are always reluctant to throw a young kid in at the deep-end if he’s not quite ready.”
Focus turns to Europe
Glasgow Warriors kick-off their European Champions Cup campaign away to reigning champions Exeter Chiefs on Sunday afternoon.
Wilson said that all 12 of the players who have been away on international duty during the last two months are available for selection. However, doubts about availability hang over Richie Gray, Chris Fusaro and Tommy Seymour, who have all been out with concussion in recent weeks – which helps highlight just how prevalent this issue is in modern rugby.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh are in a similar boat area of their home match against La Rochelle on Saturday night, except full-back Blair Kinghorn is touch-and-go to be fit after breaking his finger against France two weekends ago.
“Blair has a finger issue after breaking it, so he’s down to train later in the week,” assistant coach Calum MacRae said last night.
Grant Gilchrist, who missed the Nations Cup with a groin injury, is progressing well and set to return to action early next month.
“He’s still a few weeks away, three or four weeks now,” said MacRae. “He is diligent as always and we’re looking forward to him returning. Potentially, that will be for the Dragons game in three or four weeks’ time. Glasgow before that would be a bonus. We have to be patient about his return to play.”