Rugby union must take “radical action” to counter the risk of degenerative brain disease among its players, a pressure group has warned, or risk the reputation of the sport being “damaged beyond repair”.
Progressive Rugby made the claim as it prepared to write to World Rugby setting out proposed new welfare requirements for players to better deal with the risks posed by concussion and head injury. Meanwhile, the legal proceedings being brought by 185 former professionals against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union were due to be presented to court on Monday.
A joint statement issued by the three governing bodies insisted on their commitment to player welfare.
“We care deeply about all our players, including former players, and never stand still when it comes to welfare,” it said. “Our strategies to prevent, identify and manage head injuries are driven by a passion to safeguard our players and founded on the latest science, evidence and independent expert guidance.” Momentum is building towards a reckoning over concussion and related illnesses in rugby, with Progressive Rugby set to issue what it believes is a comprehensive manifesto for restructuring the sport.
“While not involved in the litigation, we are deeply saddened to see the large number of players taking legal action as a result of neurological issues they believe are related to their time playing the game,” the organisation said.
“Progressive Rugby is in the process of finalising a comprehensive list of player welfare critical requirements which will be submitted to World Rugby. We believe delay is no longer an option and that radical action must be taken as a matter of urgency to ensure rugby union’s reputation isn’t damaged beyond repair.”
The complaints that form the basis of the class action, which is led by the law firm Rylands, include a central allegation that World Rugby, the RFU and WRFU failed properly to educate and protect players from health risks when the sport turned professional in 1995. Further complaints are related to a failure subsequently to mitigate risk, including the contentious “stand down” period for players who have suffered apparent concussion and an alleged lack of MRI scans.
The former Wales captain Ryan Jones was recently diagnosed with early onset dementia. He joins others including the Wales international Alix Popham, the former England flanker Michael Lipman and England’s 2003 World Cup-winning hooker, Steve Thompson, all of whom have been diagnosed in their 40s with early onset dementia.
The former Pontypool, Ebbw Vale and Pontypridd wing Lenny Woodard, who also represented Wales at rugby league, received a diagnosis of early onset dementia last year. The 46-year-old said he had received five to 10 serious head injuries during his career and many more “subconcussions”, but had always put pressure on himself to stay on the pitch.
“If I came off from a game and someone comes into the squad, takes my position and plays incredibly well, they’ll keep the position,” he said. “If that happens in March and I’m trying to earn a contract for the following season, it’s an interesting situation to be in when you’ve got a mortgage and children.
“The coaches, too, want their best team on the pitch, so you’re constantly asking: am I doing the best for me? Am I doing the best for the team? Sometimes those aren’t the same answer and I think that decision must be taken away from the players.”
Woodard said he joined the legal action because he wanted “a line in the sand” to be drawn under previous practices. “On a personal level I want to make the game safer and, while I’m not looking for financial gain for myself personally, what I’m looking to do is ensure that my children and my partner do not have to pay for any treatment that I have as a result of this.
“I think there’s a lot of negativity around this, with some former players saying we’re ruining the game, but ultimately it’s not fair on my children to have to bear the brunt of caring for me because I made the decision to play rugby 30 to 40 years earlier.”