NZ Rugby World
A GENERATION OF PROFESSIONAL PLAYERS ARE LIVING WITH EARLY ON-SET DEMENTIA WHICH THEY SAY IS THE DIRECT RESULT OF SUFFERING MULTIPLE CONCUSSIONS DURING THEIR CAREERS. THIS GROUP IS TAKING LEGAL ACTION, BUT THE CASE IS UNLIKELY TO PRODUCE ANY WINNERS.
It was as inevitable as it was sad that World Rugby would one day be subjected to legal action in relation to head injury management. The game has periods in its history which don't present well under scrutiny.
Back in the amateur days when replacements could only be made because of injury, there was a reluctance for anyone to come off the field.
Players would stay on through the most extreme injuries. That was the culture of the day – hard men proving just how hard they were, while there was also an element of players not wanting to give the next guy an opportunity in the jersey.
As former All Blacks captain Buck Shelford says in The Captain's Run: “Today's era is quite different because you are playing with 23 players,” he says. “In my day you weren't. You were playing the whole game and you didn't give it away for anything.
“You would play through anything. If we broke fingers, you would stay on the field. Tape the bastards up and get on with it. Six or seven stitches...you play on. Concussion... captains wouldn't let you go off the field. Jock [captain Hobbes] wouldn't let me off in Nantes when I was concussed. Today Jock would not have done that and nor would I. It was just how leadership was back then.”
We can only guess as to how often that happened – players staying on the field when they were concussed. But it's also true that the science was limited back then, too.
The medical fraternity was not exploring the sports world the way it is now and knowledge on how to best manage head injuries was limited.
There are an increasing number of older players – those who played in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – who are reporting with dementia that may be connected to head knocks they suffered playing rugby.
But the bigger concern is that a younger generation of players – those who were active in the early era of professionalism – are producing disproportionately high numbers of players with early on-set dementia.
And that’s why a class action has been filed in the UK against World Rugby and the respective national unions of Wales and England.
The highest profile names in the action are former World Cup winner Steve Thompson, former England flanker Michael Lipman and former Wales flanker Alix Popham.
Thompson, who was a world class hooker, says he can't remember anything about the 2003 World Cup.
He has no memory of the final and that his health has been seriously compromised by his mental state.
The other players in the lawsuit all have similar stories – they can't remember things, they suffer headaches, mood swings and moments of intense rage.
Their lives are playing out as if they are
passengers inside themselves and their quality of life has been greatly compromised.
The class action so far includes 40 former professionals and the lawyer leading it, Richard Boardman of Ryland Law told The Guardian: “We believe that up to potentially 50 per cent of all former rugby union players that played in the professional era could end up with neurological complications. We are not saying it’s 50 per cent guaranteed, nor are we saying that all the neurological complications will be dementia.
“There’s guys with epilepsy and postconcussion syndrome and various other difficulties.”
The basis for the legal action is that rugby authorities essentially failed to protect their players and instil best practice management as it related to the science.
It will be a case that evokes mixed feelings across the rugby family as everyone has been affected by the harrowing stories of Thompson, Popham and Lipman and all the others who are suffering. It is tragic that their lives have been impacted so adversely.
But World Rugby has spent the last decade – longer – building and evolving best practice management in regard to head knocks and return to play protocol.
The governing body has been proactive, transparent and public in its thinking and desires and has implemented multiple initiatives to increase its knowledge and better manage players.
Most notably, since 2016, it has been trying to eliminate head high tackling, which is why World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont wrote an open letter shortly after the class action had been filed.
It said: “As World Rugby Chairman, a former player, father of three rugby players, and a fan, I am saddened by recent accounts of former players and their experiences. My thoughts are with them and anyone in the rugby family who is struggling.
“I want to reassure every member of the rugby family that player welfare is - and always has been – our number one priority at all levels of the game.
“As a player who retired on medical advice in the early 1980s, I care deeply about the welfare of all players. They are the heartbeat of our sport and we work tirelessly to protect them.
“I am personally committed to growing the science available so that we can to continue to shape our understanding of how best to safeguard the well-being of our players. I believe that we are at the forefront of evidence-based concussion education, prevention and management in sport.
“It is clear, however, that the area of concussion and long-term cognitive health is extremely complex. We have continuously acted on research and scientific information as it has become available. The science continues to evolve, and we will evolve with it.”
The problem for Beaumont is that World Rugby is going to struggle to prove that it has always considered player welfare of primary importance in the last 15 years.
It may say it has, but there is strong evidence to contradict that, not the least of which was seen this year.
When the All Blacks lost to the Wallabies in Brisbane two red cards were shown for high tackles and as the offenders Ofa Tuungafasi and Lachlan Swinton trudged off at Suncorp, World Rugby chalked up another victory for making the game that little bit safer.
Except many wondered why, after all 130kg of Tuungafasi crashed into the chin of Tom Wright, the slightly built Wallabies wing didn't require a head injury assessment?
Sam Whitelock didn't go off for a test either after his head was collected by Swinton's shoulder and there it was – a major flaw in the current protocol: a tackle deemed significant to merit a red card does not automatically require the victim to be taken off for a Head Injury Assessment.
The legislation has a giant hole in it: the red card is mandatory but not the test?
And then there is an even bigger hole in World Rugby's rules. In the second Bledisloe Cup test, Ardie Savea was reprimanded by New Zealand Rugby for not wearing a mouth guard.
The nonsensical thing is that professional players in New Zealand have to wear a mouth guard as part of their contractual agreement, but it is not actually a World rugby requirement to do so.
There are multiple research papers which have established that a mouth guard is a simple, inexpensive and effective injury prevention tool and yet it is not compulsory to wear one in a test match.
The failure by World Rugby to take a strong stand on mouth guards leaves them vulnerable to accusation that they haven't taken player welfare anywhere near as seriously as they should.
And in 2019 World Rugby was accused, out right, by various player associations of not duly considering the welfare of the athletes when they were trying to create the League of Nations.
A $12billion pay day was on the cards if World Rugby could create this 12-team competition that would effectively replace the June and November tests, but it would extend the season for the most successful teams and inflict yet more demanding rugby.
New Zealand Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol, said: “November, presents a lot of issues from a player welfare and game integrity point of view, and we highlighted those issues. They [World Rugby] seem to have been quite dismissive of it.
“It's got to a stage, as we've learnt their plans around potentially adopting this in mid-March, where we've realised they have not genuinely listened to the players.
“The No 1 concern is they've developed something they know is fraught with issues from the players' perspective, but rather than engage with ourselves and other key stakeholders like the clubs, they've actually turned a blind eye to it.”
The inference was clear – World Rugby became less protective of the players when there was an enormous amount of money on the table.
The evidence was there to say more rugby meant more injuries and yet World Rugby forged on regardless and the plan was foiled only because agreement couldn't be reached about relegation and promotion.
If that had been something that the major nations had signed off, then the players' concerns were never going to be considered and they would have been asked to play five incredibly tough tests in consecutive weeks throughout each November and early December.
Welfare, it seems, is only top of the agenda when it doesn't endanger World Rugby's bank account and it shouldn't be overly difficult for the class action to successfully make this point.