Rugby union is facing its biggest crisis, World Cup winner Paul Grayson claimed last night.
Grayson played alongside Steve Thompson for Northampton and England in the 1990s and 2000s and considers him a friend.
To hear Thompson say yesterday that he does not remember playing at the 2003 World Cup and that sometimes he even forgets the name of his wife Steph, has rocked his former team mate.
The World Cup-winning hooker revealed yesterday that he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 42.
He and seven other former players are starting a claim against the sport’s authorities for negligence, claiming rugby has left them with permanent brain damage.
Grayson said: “This is a huge worry, potentially game changing. This will make every single rugby player think hard. There is no hiding from it.
“I’d go as far as to say rugby is about to go into its greatest crisis. I can’t see how this isn’t the biggest moment the sport has faced since it turned professional.”
Dad-of-four Thompson believes constant head knocks during matches and training are to blame for his condition.
He cites the example of one training session “when the scrummaging hadn’t gone quite right and they made us do a hundred live scrums”, adding: “When it comes to it, we were like a bit of meat, really.”
Grayson, whose son James now plays for Northampton, said: “I feel desperately sorry for Steve. I know him well and to see a friend fearful of what’s coming next for him and his family is horrible.
“Does it scare me? One hundred per cent. You ask yourself what is normal in terms of memory loss. My mother-in-law has just been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. She is 80 years old and her memory is terrible.
“To be in your early 40s and have a similar thing because you’ve had a load of smashes to the head in the course of playing a sport, is just horrendous.
“It does make me think, with kids in the game, is it safe and if not how can we make it safer? It makes me question everything and it worries me there could be a lot more of these cases to come out.”
Grayson, 49, remembers Thompson, who won 73 England caps and three for the 2005 Lions, as a special talent.
“He wasn’t a reckless player, he was an exceptional player; spectacularly good,” said his former fly-half.
“That meant he was at the top of the game for a hell of a long time in a position where two gangs of eight blokes weighing 900 kilos between them smash into each other in training and in games.
“Old School was always more stick than carrot in terms of training methods. It was a time when more of something was often the answer.
“No longer can there be any place for ‘that was a rugby collision, he didn’t mean it’. You can’t have ‘I didn’t mean it’ collisions any more.”