THE Scotland Women’s squad have insisted that a recent report on the events leading up to the death of their team-mate Siobhan Cattigan does not accurately portray the character of head coach Bryan Easson or the commitment of their medical staff towards player welfare.
Making public their views on the matter through the chief executive of Rugby Players Scotland (RPS), Bill Mitchell, the squad are adamant that they do not want to dispute what Neil and Morven Cattigan, the parents of Siobhan, believe. But they nonetheless characterise the level of support they receive, both physical and ‘pastoral’, as very high.
Capped 19 times by Scotland, Cattigan died late last last year at the age of 26 following a rapid and alarming deterioration in her mental health. In a Sunday Times article at the end of last month, her parents revealed that they have joined a lawsuit being brought against Scottish Rugby and World Rugby alleging that more could have been done to prevent the brain damage suffered by a number of former top-level players.
In the article, the Cattigans movingly voiced their hurt, frustration and anger at Scottish Rugby’s handling of two concussions suffered by their daughter in a 14-month period between February 2020 and April 2021, stating that they believed Siobhan was encouraged to continue training and playing when she was not fit to do so, and arguing that the appropriate level of medical and pastoral support was not made available when she started to become depressed and withdrawn.
“We believe that what happened was brought on by the undetected brain disease caused by repetitive brain injuries received on the rugby field,” said Neil Cattigan. “I am also convinced that if someone had referred Siobhan to a neurologist at any point during her illness she would still be with us.”
No details of the forward’s death were made public at the time, but the Sunday Times reported: “It had got to the point where she could no longer live with the pain in her head and Siobhan succumbed to an irrational thought and impulsive action”.
Mitchell – whose RPS association represents the collective interest of all Scotland’s professional rugby players – spoke to The Offside Line earlier today [Thursday] on behalf of the Scotland squad. “This is a truly awful situation,” he said. “We are all deeply saddened by Siobhan’s passing and very sympathetic to what her family is going through.
“We cannot and will not challenge what the Cattigans believe, [but] what we can do is put forward our understanding of how this squad experience playing for Scotland, and the support they receive.
“I’m not an apologist for the SRU and nor, in fairness, do the SRU expect me to be,” added Mitchell, who helped set up RPS in August 2019 against stiff opposition from Murrayfield, and who points out that it is one of only two player associations globally that does not receive any funding from their governing body, although he acknowledges that the two organisations do now have a very constructive relationship.
“My concern, entirely, is to address the perception that has been promoted that in some way, shape or form, the duty of care which is afforded to our [RPS] members is sub-optimal, is less than acceptable.
“Murrayfield get some things wrong, but this [player welfare] they don’t. So, the position that the squad is taking – and RPS is supportive of this – is that the level and standard of physical and pastoral care in Scottish rugby is very high.
“Are there things about being a Scotland squad member they want to change? Yes – it has taken longer than we would all have hoped to get to the stage where we are having constructive conversations about realistic contracts for the women’s team, so that is a frustration. But the healthcare they receive is excellent, the pastoral care is excellent, and they [the squad] are upset at the inference that can be drawn that it was less than that.”
It is made clear in the Sunday Times article that the Cattigans believe team doctor Carrie McCrae should have done more to provide appropriate support when it became apparent that Siobhan’s mental health was deteriorating at an alarming rate. This could not be addressed directly due to medical confidentiality and the prospect of a court case, but Mitchell stressed that the players were keen to highlight that this portrayal does not match their own experiences.
“Individuals in the squad have said she has gone out of her way on occasion to provide help and support when approached by girls – way beyond just the immediate concerns of physical care,” he said.
Head coach Easson was also singled out. It was claimed that as Cattigan was being treated on the pitch following a head injury against Wales during the 2021 Six Nations, the coach could be heard through a medic’s ear-piece shouting: “Get her f***ing back on that pitch, get her back on.”
Scottish Rugby responded to this in the original article, stating that: “Given the seriousness of this suggestion, we sought feedback from people who attended Siobhan during her treatment for this injury. Those people are categoric that this phrase was not heard or said and include the medic who treated Siobhan. Coach Bryan Easson, himself, categorically denies making this alleged comment.”
Later in the article it is stated that Cattigan was “screamed at” and told that there was “no room for anxiety” in the squad when she was clearly struggling during Scotland’s three-match World Cup qualifying tournament in Italy last summer.
“I have not heard anything about that,” said Mitchell, reasoning that such behaviour would not have been accepted by the rest of the squad.
“The squad are very supportive of Bryan Easson as the coach because they think he’s been great since he came on board,” he added. “Again, there are a few things Bryan doesn’t do particularly well, but there is unanimous feeling within the squad that the picture which has been painted of him and the way that he communicates is just not accurate.”
Mitchell acknowledges that refusing a request to have Cattigan’s name embroidered on the team’s shirts for their match against France during the 2022 Six Nations was a “mistake” by the SRU. An agreement was eventually reached to lay a Scotland shirt on the pitch ‘crest up’ during the national anthems.
Another bone of contention relates to whether some of Cattigan’s team-mates missed the funeral because of a failure by the SRU to pass on the appropriate information.
“Because of the deeply emotional and upsetting circumstances, there was a failure of communication somewhere along the line,” said Mitchell. “I am certain that there was no intention by the SRU to exclude anyone who was invited – I can’t see any reason why they would deliberately exclude anyone. The newspaper article was certainly the first time the team knew about it being an ongoing issue, so that came completely out the blue.
“The SRU are very clear that they were told there would be a list of people who could attend made available and that’s what happened.”
Scottish Rugby has so far resisted calls for an independent inquiry.
“There are a number of people looking at a number of things at the moment,” said Chief Executive Mark Dodson during a media briefing after last Saturday’s AGM. “It is not a review. It will try and establish the facts. That is what we are trying to do. Facts and timeline.
“This may end up in court proceedings and this may be the most appropriate place for this to end up.
“We are trying to establish the facts. There is one part of the story that has been out there. What we are trying to establish is the whole story. Until we establish the whole story, the timeline and facts, the facts will come out in due course.”
- Since publication of this article, multiple members of the Scotland Women squad have tweeted a statement which reads: “As a squad we were never aware of this RPS article being published or the statements attributed to the team in this article. We are grieving our friend and teammate, our thoughts are with Siobhan’s family.”