Rugby’s Dementia Crisis, How this could affect the rugby landscape we know today.

 

As a fan the case brought forward by a number of ex international rugby players led by Steve Thompson, England’s World Cup Winning international, is greatly disturbing. Traumatic Brain injury as described by Thompson during the early era of professionalism in rugby was never thought of as a physical injury like others that would knock a player out of a game. Where a player goes down with, lets say an ankle injury and cannot put weight on that leg. That player would be brought off and an injury replacement brought on, Concussion was prescribed as one you could shake off and return. Rugby and other contact sports need to, and to their credit professionally have improved in their protocols declaring this unseen injury severe enough if detected for a player to be removed and a treatment plan put in place.

In 2003 Steve Thompson helped England win the World Cup, playing a part in one of the most memorable endings to a match. Now aged 43, he finds he has no memory of the match at all – and has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. Andy Bull describes how a group of former stars are launching a legal case against the sport’s governing bodies

The 2003 World Cup final between England and Australia had gone into the last minute of extra time, with scores tied. Steve Thompson, the England hooker, threw the ball in from a line out and, as England advanced, the ball ended with Jonny Wilkinson, whose drop goal dramatically won the match for England. It’s one of the most memorable moments in recent rugby history, but Thompson, now retired aged 42, doesn’t remember it.

Thompson, one of several former players launching legal action against rugby union’s governing bodies. They claim that past failures to properly manage the safety of players who regularly received blows to the head has left some of them with debilitating conditions such as dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

If the players are successful in these test cases, the consequences for the sport could be transformational. And rugby is not alone: boxing, NFL and football are all reckoning with former stars who believe their careers in the sport have left them with lifelong medical conditions.

A spokesperson for World Rugby said: “While it would be inappropriate to comment on possible legal proceedings, everyone in World Rugby has utmost respect for the wellbeing of all our players, including former players.”

“Player welfare is our top priority and, along with our unions, we are unwavering in our commitment to evidence-based injury prevention strategies, in particular in the priority area of concussion education, management and prevention, and our approach is based on the latest available research, evidence and knowledge.”

Steve Thompson celebrates England 2003 World Cup final win over Australia – an event he now says he can’t remember. Photograph: Odd Andersen/Getty/AFP