There is every likelihood that current professional rugby players will suffer long-term brain injury as the incidence of concussion increases, a surgeon who worked for the Welsh Rugby Union has said.
The WRU, along with World Rugby and the Rugby Football Union, have been served with a legal letter of claim by a group of nine former players, including former England international Steve Thompson and Wales flanker Alix Popham.
The duo are part of the first generation whose entire careers took place in rugby’s professional era, during which it is accepted that the game has become more physical and that the force of collisions has increased.
Professor John Fairclough is part of the Progressive Rugby group which is lobbying the game’s governing bodies to introduce measures to make the game safer, including a return to a minimum break of three weeks if a player suffers a concussion. Popham is also part of the group.
He fears that the problems being suffered by the likes of Thompson and Popham now will likely be replicated in those still playing who will retire over the next five years.
Citing a study in the Welsh professional game carried out by Cardiff Metropolitan University between 2012 and 2016, Prof Fairclough told the PA news agency: “Over a four-year surveillance period the number of concussions was increasing.
“The likelihood is we are going to see more (players with long-term brain injury). In the 30-odd years I’ve been sitting pitch-side there has been an increasing number of people with head injuries so if we’re exposing more, yes we’re going to see an impact.”
Prof Fairclough is set to give evidence to a parliamentary inquiry examining the link between playing sports and long-term brain injury next week.
He feels the reduction of unnecessary risk is key to minimising the likelihood of players suffering neurodenegerative disorders later in life.
“The pressure of the boards is to get the best players on the pitch for as long as they can,” he said.
“There are slightly different viewpoints. They don’t want to harm their players but they want to err on the side of their business. What we’re saying is that at some point there needs to be a recognition of being on the side of safety.
“We don’t want to kill the sports with litigation. If there is a litigation case that is correct, of course that must go ahead,” he said.
“But let’s try and remove those factors which we can remove. What we have to do in rugby and football is to reduce the risk so that the game can carry on in a safe way.”
The MPs on the DCMS committee will hear from Professor Willie Stewart on Tuesday.
The FIELD study he led at the University of Glasgow published data in 2019 that professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disorders than age-matched members of the population.
Since then, the national football associations of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland have advised coaches to avoid heading in training for children aged 11 and under.
A working group is also looking at the possible introduction of limits on heading in training at the senior professional level.
Repetitive heading of the ball was the cause of the brain injury which led to the death of former England and West Brom striker Jeff Astle aged 59 in 2002, according to the coroner in his case.
His daughter Dawn, who has campaigned for greater research into the link between heading and brain injury, is expected to give evidence to the committee at a later date.
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