The headlines this week about former players suffering early onset dementia are hugely sad but we should be focusing on the issues that raises rather than the legal claims.
I played with Steve Thompson and Alix Popham at Brive and the most important aspect in all this is how devastating it is for them and the others involved personally.
We don’t know the details of the legal case being brought by Rylands Law against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union for “failure to protect (the claimants) from the risks caused by concussions” or whether it has much chance of being successful but the media coverage hasn’t painted the sport in a good light.
People looking on from outside the sport could be forgiven for thinking that we’re in the dark ages but that isn’t the case at all. Huge strides have been made and the sports science involved at every club now is so detailed compared to where it was 10 years ago.
With hindsight you can look back and say certain things could have been done differently but that is using the knowledge we have now. I’m not sure we can hold unions and governing bodies solely responsible when players wanted to play and often pushed themselves to play too soon after getting injured.
It might not have been a head injury but I remember a game towards the end of my career that I played in when my shoulder was absolutely ruined. I shouldn’t have played but I wanted to and those are the decisions we make as professional sportsmen to push ourselves.
We’ve heard before this week’s news my generation of players being described as “crash test dummies” but I don’t agree with that. It was a privilege to play rugby for a living and it’s great that the sport is evolving but we worked with the information we had at the time.
There’s no doubt the game has already moved on a huge amount in terms of concussion since I finished playing and a lot is being done but I do think World Rugby could standardise the amount of contact training that is done during the week for clubs and countries across the globe and put maximum limits in place.
Some clubs clearly do more than others and I think a cap on the amount they’re allowed to do would help but some contact training is obviously essential in order to prepare yourself for a tough, physical contest at the weekend.
The likes of Rob Baxter and Toby Booth have spoken well this week about the amount that is being done to protect players nowadays and they have seen it all from the amateur days to professionalism and where we’re at now which is ultra professional.
We have seen what World Rugby have been trying to do in the past few years with tackle heights as well so action is being taken and I think they’re doing what they can.
More research and greater awareness can only be a good thing and that may lead to a limiting of contact training, potentially fewer substitutions or other solutions being implemented.
I think it is fair to question whether litigation is the right route to go down and the details of the case and law firm concerned but the sport should absolutely have something in place to ensure that all the support necessary is provided to former players with these sorts of issues.
Rugby is a contact sport and we all know that comes with risks, just as we know that as parents when we consider whether we want our kids to play the game. It isn’t an easy decision but it’s one we have to make.
We should always strive to do more as a sport to improve safety and I hope that the awareness this raises will lead to some tangible solutions but we just need to be careful we don’t get wrapped up in a blame game and miss the bigger picture.
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