The lawyer leading an action on behalf of players suffering from early onset dementia has warned of an ‘epidemic’ in brain disease among retired professionals without serious reform of the game.
Richard Boardman, who is representing a group of seven players including 2003 England World Cup winner Steve Thompson, said doing nothing is not an option for the rugby authorities.
He told the PA news agency: ‘We believe up to 50 per cent of former professional rugby players could end up with neurological complications in retirement.
The lawyer representing group of rugby players who are suing authorities over brain injuries believesup to 50 per cent of ex-professionals could end up with neurological complications in retirement – labelling the issue as a brain ‘epidemic’ unless there is a reform within the game
Steve Thompson, pictured here with his ex-wife celebrating England’s World Cup win in 2003, cannot remember any of the game and has been diagnosed with early onset dementia
Thompson is leading a group of retired rugby players bringing action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union for negligence over brain injuries they suffered in their career
‘That’s an epidemic, and whether you believe the governing bodies and World Rugby are liable or not, something has to be done to improve the game going forward.’
The initial ‘test group’ for the action – against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union – are Thompson, fellow former England international Michael Lipman and former Wales number eight Alix Popham.
Speaking on Tuesday, Thompson revealed he has forgotten about his magical feat in 2003 – despite playing every game of England’s World Cup glory.
The former Lion says he sometimes cannot even remember the name of his wife.
‘I have no recollection of winning the World Cup in 2003 or of being in Australia for the tournament,’ said Thompson, who retired in 2011 after winning 73 caps.
Thompson celebrates on England’s 2003 victory parade but now admits he has no recollection of what should be his greatest memory in the game
HOW PLAYING RUGBY DAMAGES THE BRAIN
Scientific trials over the past decade have established a clear link between repeated concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative brain disease which can lead to dementia.
Mounting evidence over the potential dangers of head contact has led to increased awareness in physical sports such as football, American football, boxing and rugby.
Repeated blows to the head suffered on the field, from colliding with other players in the case of rugby or from boxers taking punches, are thought to be the cause of the irreversible damage.
The RFU admits that it poses a ‘significant potential risk of concussion’. It says there is one incident in every three professional matches. But it says the risk is much lower in amateur matches.
Researchers this year found young rugby players who suffer repeated small blows to the head can develop subtle brain damage — even if they are not serious enough to cause a concussion.
Western University scientists said their findings add to existing evidence that even if a knock to the head doesn’t lead to a concussion, it could still cause long-term brain damage.
‘I can’t remember any of the games whatsoever or anything that happens in those games. It’s like I’m watching the game with England playing and I can see me there, but I wasn’t there, because it’s not me.
‘You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it.
‘It’s just bizarre. People talk about stories, and since the World Cup I’ve talked to the lads who were there, and you pick up stories, and then you can talk about it, but it’s not me being there, it’s not me doing it, because it’s just gone.’
Boardman said the initial group could increase to 10 or 11 former players in total later this week or early next week.
Boardman says he is working with a group of 110 ex-players overall, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s. The individual claims of the smaller group are heard first before an application can be made for a larger group litigation order.
‘We’re sending the letter before action to the other side later this week or early next week and then quite rightly they will have a chance to go away for a number of months and reply,’ he said.
‘It’s worth emphasising that this is just the opening salvo of the action – there’s a very long way to go, nothing has been resolved, we’ve not even engaged in opening conversations yet with the other side.’
As part of the action, the players involved are supporting a list of 15 ‘commandments’ for the sport to adopt to make it safer, and insist it is not just about financial compensation.
However, the NFL in the United States settled a class action lawsuit with players suffering from neurological conditions worth over half a billion pounds, and Boardman expected each claim in the rugby action to be substantial.
‘We’ve got a lot of guys in their early 40s with early onset dementia, and by the time they get into their 50s a lot of them will be unable to work and will require a lot of healthcare,’ he said.
‘So the quantum for such claims will be considerable, certainly in the seven figures.’
Former Wales No 8 Alix Popham is another former player named in the test case
He can no longer be left to take care of his young child alone without someone else there
Thompson has been named as a test case along with former England flanker Michael Lipman (above)
Lipman accepts that he is fighting a battle that ultimately he won’t be able to win
THE PLAYERS’ CHARTER FOR CHANGE
The players involved in the action have proposed this 15 point charter to improve health and safety in rugby
1. World Rugby to accept that playing professional rugby can lead to CTE and other neurodegenerative diseases.
2. Regulated training to be introduced limiting contact to a certain number of sessions a year.
3. Limit the number of substitutes per game.
4. All players’ unions to have greater independence.
5. Zero hour contracts to be abolished.
6. Competent baseline testing each pre-season.
7. Adoption of better sideline testing.
8. Concussions spotters to have authority to remove players showing visible symptoms.
9. Career-long central database chronicling injury history.
10. Remove rugby union’s reliance on various arch-conservative organisations, such as the International Consensus Group on Concussion in Sport (CISG) and the International Concussion & Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF), and select sports science departments.
11. Urgent research to be carried out on front row forwards.
12. Greater education on the issue of concussion.
13. For every three concussions suffered by a player, he or she will receive a full set of medical tests.
14. Remove reliance on the MRI scan to prove brain trauma.
15. Better aftercare.
Boardman insisted the reform proposals would not change rugby as a spectacle if implemented and said: ‘Every guy involved in this action loves the game, and they love the physicality of it.
‘The caveat to that is, since 1995 when the game went professional, the size of the guys has increased, the power, the strength, the pace of the game and therefore the collisions have increased.
‘I certainly think potentially there are things within a game that could change. If you think of the 2019 World Cup final when the ‘bomb squad’ – six 18-stone South Africans – came off the bench in the second half, that just means that the days of the 15-stone Jeff Probyn have gone.’
One of the commandments called for players’ unions to be more independent, with Boardman saying it was a ‘conflict of interest’ that over 90 per cent of the Rugby Players’ Association’s funding came from the RFU.
‘How can a players’ union receive 90 per cent of its funding from the employer/organisation that it negotiates with?’ he said.
‘If you take that as a starting point and say “that doesn’t happen with any (other) trade union anywhere in the world in any industry”, then clearly there’s considerable conflict of interest there.
‘We absolutely get that the RPA needs to get the funding from somewhere, but surely over 90 per cent of it doesn’t have to come from the organisation that it spends all of its time negotiating with ultimately?’
The group’s 15 commandments criticised the RPA and its chief executive Damian Hopley for failing to prevent Premiership Rugby extending its season to 10 months.
It also said the union had ‘failed to secure a solitary concession’ when player wages were cut by 25 per cent during the suspension of competition at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked about the aftercare players receive, Boardman added: ‘That’s something our players are particularly disgruntled about.
‘They believe they are left with their broken bodies and minds to try and get by as best they can.
‘In fact one of the commandments our guys would like to see is that, upon retirement, each player gets a health MOT to see if there is anything they can get clinical attention and support for.
‘We can’t do trial by media, so now we’ve announced the litigation we’ve got to take a step back.
‘But immediate changes need to be made to the game to protect the current generation and future players. The collisions are just as big now, the speed of the game, the workload, and there’s nothing to suggest what’s happened to Steve and Alix and Michael won’t happen to current and future generations.’