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'We want to hear from the critics': World Rugby changing its tune

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Matt Impey/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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It wasn’t that long ago where World Rugby were generally viewed as this monolithic organisation, slow to change and impervious to criticism, but that unapproachable reputation appears to be mellowing with the baton of CEO now passed to Alan Gilpin, the administrator best known previously as the face of the 2019 World Cup who had to explain the rationale behind the pool match cancellations caused by a typhoon striking Japan. 


Gilpin’s composed handling of that crisis, which saw three pool matches fall by the wayside and some others left in jeopardy until they eventually were given the green light, has ultimately served him well, the administrator initially taking on the World Rugby CEO role on an interim basis before he was permanently appointed in March. 

One of the regular past criticisms of World Rugby is that they don’t have a voice, that when problems arise there is collective hiding behind the big corporate curtain rather than demonstrating the eloquence to front up and talk about awkward, hot topic issues affecting the game. 

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Concussion, in particular, is a subject that has had World Rugby on the backfoot PR wise for quite some time. Every time there is a major debate ignited, they are seemingly presented as the spook in the room, the punch bag for everything that is wrong regardless of any steps that they may be taking to better tackle a thorny issue.

It was last December when a group of ex-players suffering from dementia came together to launch a landmark legal case against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union over alleged failures to protect players from the risks caused by concussion, a development that seems to have spurred the game’s global governing body into becoming more proactive and more vocal about what it is doing in this sector. 

It was why Gilpin and a coterie of his colleagues popped up on a Zoom last week to get their message across prior to the July 14 announcement of a six-point player welfare 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. In other words, they are willing to start paying the aftercare bills. 


It’s a prudent move, committing to work 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. But will it be enough to reverse the general impression that World Rugby constantly equals bad when it comes to the problem of concussion?

“It’s a great question,” said Gilpin when this was put to him by RugbyPass, that positive steps taken by World Rugby in this area are usually drowned out by the negativity that concussion regularly generates and how it is going to be really difficult for them to change that perception. 

“It’s not about being painted as the bad guys. What it highlights to us is the whole debate around concussion and brain injury is that it is a really complex area. As Eanna (Falvey, World Rugby chief medical officer) will tell you far better than any of us, there is a lack of scientific and medical consensus on what some of those things mean. 

“What we know is we have got to work with the best science we can, invest more in research, do more that is rugby specific and that is kind of what you are hearing from us now – and what the whole debate also highlights is we have just got to spend a lot more time and energy educating every part of the game.


“Whether that is understanding more in the community game and sharing that information with young players and parents all the way through the community game and definitely at the elite level where that focus really is, making sure that people do understand the processes and the safeguards that are in place around head injuries assessments, around graduated return to play, the introduction of the ICC (independent concussions consultants) concept. 

“The more we can socialise that, the more we can educate around that the better people’s understanding will be and the better quality debate that we will have. It will constantly evolve, it is continuing to evolve and we want to continue to evolve with that debate. 

“That is why one of our key messages is we will continue to engage in that space all the time. Eanna made the point, we want to hear from the critics because that is how we get challenged in a positive way to try and make things better.”

Right now, the narrative about surrounding concussions is entirely negative, that it is the heartwrenching stories about ex-players who are deeply affected by the issue that are understandably getting told. Is there scope, though, to start better telling the other side of the story, that current players can have a concussion and safely return to play? 

“Great point and it’s actually a point we have discussed quite extensively with International Rugby Players is exactly that, that one of the best ways to educate is by the players for the players. Certainly, as we move forward in this space and we look to get a lot more education capability across, that is going to be really key, that we hear from players about the positive experience, how their concussion was managed.”


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