Rugby in the dock

Rugby in the dock

What’s it like to win the Rugby World Cup? “Steve Thompson should know,” said Henry Mance in the FT – he was in the England team that lifted the trophy in Sydney in 2003. But the 42-year-old has no memory at all of the tournament today. Indeed, he sometimes even struggles to recall his wife’s name. Thompson is one of eight former players, all under 45, who are preparing to sue the sport’s governing bodies for negligence after being diagnosed with early onset dementia – a result, they believe, of the repeated blows to the head they suffered during their careers. The lawsuit represents an overdue “reckoning” for rugby union. Since the sport turned professional in 1995, the players have grown ever larger, and the collisions ever more punishing. And it’s now clear that all those “big hits” celebrated by commentators and fans don’t just exact an immediate physical toll. Rugby’s ruling bodies could soon find themselves facing the same sort of compensation claims as the US National Football League, which in 2013 agreed to pay some $765m to settle a lawsuit from former players over brain injury.

I was saddened to hear Thompson’s story, and others like it, said the Welsh former international Sam Warburton in The Times – but not, I confess, all that surprised. There were times early in my career, which began after theirs, when I was concussed during a match, but kept on playing. All the players did that. As knowledge of the symptoms and effects of concussion grew, the sport introduced more safety measures, to the point where I was once pulled off the field for a test just because I had got up more slowly than usual after a tackle. But the changes were introduced too late for many older players. Rugby has tried to deal with the problem, said Owen Slot in the same paper, but “it started trying too late and it moved far too slowly”. Most concussions are inflicted during tackles, which have become a much bigger part of the game: the average number of tackles per team per match has grown from 48 in the 1987 World Cup, to 96 in 2003, to 129 in last year’s tournament. And as professionals, they now practise these tackles many times every day. “Let there be no doubt, this is an existential crisis for professional rugby union.” It may not survive in its current form.

France may have some of the answers, said Gavin Mairs in The Daily Telegraph. A grassroots trial there has shown that banning tackles above the waist and simultaneous double tackles, and requiring ball carriers to stay upright rather than charging with their heads down, can cut injuries significantly. Other reforms could include minimising contact in training, allowing fewer substitutions to keep fresh players off, and imposing weight restrictions on teams, said Robert Kitson in The Guardian. One thing’s for sure: if rugby is to survive, as something people are comfortable to watch and let their children play, the “frequency and intensity of those so-called ‘hits’ has to diminish”.

 

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