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New World Rugby plan includes brain health care for ex-players

By Liam Heagney

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World Rugby have launched a new six-point plan to advance player welfare in rugby which includes the provision of aftercare for former players left stricken by brain injuries. The game’s global governing body came under scrutiny last December when it emerged that a group of ex-players – including England 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson and Wales’ Alix Popham – were preparing a negligence claim after they were diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

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This was followed in February by the setting up in February of Progressive Rugby, a lobby group headed by the likes of James Haskell and Jamie Cudmore who presented a list of desired changes and requested to speak with senior World Rugby figures to “discuss how we can work together to get control of this issue that threatens the very future of our game”.

Five months later, World Rugby have now launched a six-point plan where number one in their half-dozen principal commitments is the advancing of best practice in care, information and support for former players struggling or concerned about their health.

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Rassie Erasmus on the possible Test series return of two players counted out of the reckoning last month
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Rassie Erasmus on the possible Test series return of two players counted out of the reckoning last month

Alan Gilpin, who was appointed World Rugby CEO in March in succession to Brett Gosper, told a media briefing attended by RugbyPass: “We are working with some public health authorities and providers and brain health specialists to pilot and then roll out a series of facilities for players to avail of who have got concerns about their own brain health as a result of concussions in the game. 

“An elite level focused education programme through players’ associations will roll that out and there will be a partnership with a number of healthcare providers to make sure we are making available some post-career care for players who can then with that support make further assessments about what further steps they need to take.

“The science around this area is always evolving and we have to push to do more. In this area the last year we have obviously heard some incredibly brave testimonies from former players who have come forward and talked about their own struggles with dementia. They are of course very much part of the rugby family and we will always stand with them in those struggles and want to talk about caring for former players. 

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“Since I have been appointed CEO I have made a commitment to hear from voices all across rugby, from everybody involved in the game, and we believe as an organisation in openness and transparency and engagement and we have definitely applied that approach to this whole area since day one and we will continue very much to do so.

“What we know is if the sport is going to continue to grow and prosper around the world we need to present the sport as a sport that is safe for people to play in all its forms. We already make a pretty big investment in player welfare, the resources we apply to it, the initiatives and the actions we are taking, and we have got a commitment from our own executive board to double that investment as we move forward. We can do more with more resources and investment.”   

The other five principal commitments in the new World Rugby six-point plan include: innovation led by science and research, the review and evolution of the laws of the game to safeguard players, a dedicated focus on the women’s game, continued investment in education, and open engagement with the rugby family.

An open letter accompanied the plan’s launch, chairman Bill Beaumont writing: “I’m clear that continuing to put player welfare front and centre is critical if we are to grow our sport. The welfare of our players has always been our number one priority, and the plan we are releasing underlines that commitment. 

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“It’s a plan by the game for the game and will have consultation at its heart. We want to build on recent constructive conversations with current and former players, fans and organisations, to make sure we hear from everyone on how to secure the future of the game we all love.”

WORLD RUGBY’S SIX-POINT ACTION PLAN
1. A focus on former players: Advancing best practice in care, information and support for former players struggling or concerned about their health.

2. Innovation led by science and research: World Rugby will continue to bring together a variety of scientific perspectives on concussion in sport to make sure we are learning from each development in the science and focusing investment into concussion and head impact in rugby studies in particular. This means further investment in research and technology to improve player safety and optimise head injury assessments and the application of the graduated return to play protocols.

3. Continue to review and evolve the laws of the game to safeguard players: The two initiatives announced – global law trials and the introduction of independent concussion consultants – are the first of a series of actions planned in this area. This includes a dedicated focus on a more flexible approach at a community level as well as a global forum on the game later this year and acting on the outcomes of the ground-breaking study by the University of Otago in New Zealand to make any required adjustments at the community and under-age levels. The following working groups will continue to monitor their respective specialist areas: Head contact process, breakdown, TMO, scrum and community law. 

4. A dedicated focus on the women’s game: Recognising both the growth potential and unique nature of women’s rugby. Measures will include dedicated research investment across the community and elite women’s rugby and women’s game-specific law reviews.

5. Continued investment in education: We will strengthen the provision of information, tools and resources to everyone involved in the game when it comes to head impacts and player welfare. This will include a new recognise and remove head injury education programme and app, a best-practice safe tackle technique programme for the whole game, and rollout of the activate injury prevention warm-up programme with a proven concussion and injury prevention benefits across all unions and regions.

6. Open engagement with the rugby family: We will consult widely and deeply across the community and professional game, for men’s and women’s rugby. Where this means embracing non-traditional channels and platforms to reach rugby fans and players, we will do so.

World Rugby have also announced that that from August 1, a package of welfare-driven law trials will be globally operational on August 1, most notably a 50:22 rule on kicking into touch in the opposition’s 22 with the result that the attacking team would secure a lineout.

The second is confirmation that the international federation will fund a programme of independent concussion consultants, not affiliated to either of the two teams playing, who will assess the suitability of a player’s return to play should they progress through the sport’s graduated return to play protocol within ten days.

Numerous transformational programmes will also be implemented at a global and domestic level. Reflecting a similar commitment in France, the RFU at the community level in England will be implementing and evaluating a waist height tackle law variation, restricting late dipping/leading into contact with the head by the ball carrier in approximately 1,200 matches at U16 to U18 age grades during 2021/22.

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New World Rugby plan includes brain health care for ex-players

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