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Rugby must face up to moment of reckoning over head injuries

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here can be little doubt that 2020 has been the worst of professional rugby’s 25 years of existence.

We have had the Saracens scandal and all the recriminations that followed. Covid wrecked the game’s finances, leading to infighting, ludicrous demands placed on players, and eventually a series of cancellations – some innocent, some not. The rugby itself? Yeah, that was pretty dour. The World Champions, South Africa, and the great growing force of 2019, Japan, never even made it onto the field.

And now, finally and most powerfully, we are having confirmed what we long suspected: the full and devastating impact of the professional game on its protagonists. We knew what it did to their bodies, now we are learning what it did to their minds.

The testimony of Steve Thompson (42), Alix Popham (41) and Michael Lipman (40) is harrowing and devastating. They have all been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). A confirmed diagnosis of that condition, for which the only known cause is blow after blow to the head, can only be made by a post-mortem examination.

Thompson, Popham and Lipman represent the tip of the iceberg. We know that because they are just the first three of a bigger group in their early forties to come forward as part of what will surely be landmark legal proceedings against the sport. But players younger than them will be heading towards the same issue.

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Thompson won the World Cup with England in 2003 but says he cannot remember the final

/ Getty Images )

Their rugby histories are having a major impact on their lives. Thompson admits to forgetting his wife’s name. When Lipman proposed to his wife, he was confused when she said he had been married before. All three have violent mood swings.

It seems notable that none of the trio seems bitter. Thompson and Popham do not believe the joy brought by the game – much of which, including Thompson winning the World Cup, they cannot remember – was worth it, given what they are going through now. But they love the game and do not want it shut down. They just want to make it safer.

The game is arguably a bit safer now than it was when these players were in their prime in the first decade of this century, in the foothills of professionalism. Attitudes toward concussion have changed, to an extent. Players go through protocols and are carefully managed. In the northern hemisphere at least, attitudes among players, coaches and fans towards contact have adjusted. The cries that the game has gone soft are heard increasingly rarely (and hopefully this will turn the volume down even further).

The trouble is that the players’ diagnoses suggest that concussion is only part of the problem. The issue is the repeated blows.

There is the lack of training limits, but the games contribute too. The issue of fatigue – or lack of it – in matches has been discussed a lot lately with regard to the spectacle. The theory goes that the game is less entertaining because there are so many replacements allowed that the majority of players on the field in the dying minutes are fresh enough to keep structure, to stop things going rogue. It also means that from minute one to minute 80, the blows keep coming with devastating force – which surely does not help.

These seem to be the professional game’s issues. At the recreational level there is the fact that the impact is lessened because the players are less powerful or fit, but crucially the volume is lower in that training is rarer and games are not as intense. There will be a trickle down beyond the professional game, too, though.

Things have changed but this is a reckoning. There is much more to be done.


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