Rugby’s professional era has created a breed of players so powerful that being tackled in the modern game is ‘like being hit by a truck’, according to a surgeon who treated ex-England hooker Steve Thompson.
The sport is facing a reckoning as former players reveal their crippling injuries inflicted by a career of fierce collisions.
Demands for action reached a crescendo this week when Thompson went public with his early dementia diagnosis and said he had no memory of winning the 2003 World Cup due to brain damage.
Professor Bill Ribbans, consultant in trauma and orthopaedic surgery who treated the hooker while at Northampton Saints, said rugby’s move away from amateurism in the 1990s ratcheted up the sport’s intensity.
He told MailOnline: ‘It’s been 25 years since the game went professional and the changes were very quick.
‘As Steve Thompson has said, he was a builder who went from training once a week to several times a week.
‘The average player’s weight increased by 20 per cent in the first 10-year period (of the professional era).
‘That coincided with advances in sport science and strength and conditioning training.’
Asked what it would be like to be hit by one of the new-era players, Professor Ribbans flatly replied: ‘It’s like being hit by a truck.’
The evolution of rugby players from stocky amateurs to athletic powerhouses was triggered by the era of professionalism. Right: Bill Beaumont in 1982. Left: Maro Itoje this year
Demands for action reached a crescendo this week when Steve Thompson (pictured) went public with his early dementia diagnosis and said he had no memory of winning the 2003 World Cup due to brain damage
Welsh winger George North, right, compared to England centre Clive Woodward in 1982
That such alarming accounts are only coming to the fore now – when the sport has been played since the early 19th Century – has been traced back to the start of the professional age.
Professionalism largely flushed the post-match drinking culture and put emphasis on nutrition and athleticism.
Once slight and nimble wingers were replaced by powerhouses built in the image of the late All Black icon Jonah Lomu – whose devastating combination of size, strength and speed set the bar for the next generation of players.
Stars of the amateur age included the likes of legendary Welsh winger JJ Williams, whose slight build of 12 stone and 5ft 9ins allowed him to carve through the opposition’s defences.
The difference is striking compared with George North, the current Welshman to wear the Number 11 jersey, who stands at 17 stone and is 6ft 4ins and crashes over players.
Professor Ribbans said that tackling one of the biggest players could put as much as a fifth of a tonne of force on one shoulder.
The volume of these impacts have also risen as the number of tackles per game has more than doubled in the last three decades.
In 1987 there was an average 94 tackles per game compared to 257 in 2019, according to official World Rugby statistics.
Once slight and nimble wingers were replaced by those built in the image of the late All Black icon Jonah Lomu – whose devastating combination of size, strength and speed set the bar for the next generation of players (pictured in 2006)
The volume of these impacts have also risen and the number of tackles per game has more than doubled in the last three decades
Professor Ribbans added that the laws have evolved in a way that encourages players to tackle higher, leading to more serious injuries.
He said that ‘rugby always had the potential to be a dangerous game’ but hoped that recent players would not suffer the same damage of the likes of Thompson because of improved treatment.
But the surgeon, whose book Knife In The Fast Lane chronicles his career in sports medicine, said ‘a lot more needs to be done’.
He joined calls for clubs to reduce the amount of contact training during the week to allow players’ bodies to recover, and also suggested a review of the substitute rules to stop fresh players coming on and smashing tired opponents.
Professor Ribbans treated Thompson when he was a player at Northampton Saints.
The 41-year-old ex-international star who retired in 2011 yesterday revealed that his memory of winning the World Cup had vanished.
He said: ‘I have no recollection of winning the World Cup in 2003 or of being in Australia for the tournament’
‘I can’t remember any of the games whatsoever or anything that happens in those games.
‘It’s like I’m watching the game with England playing and I can see me there, but I wasn’t there, because it’s not me.
Professor Ribbans said the average player’s weight increased by 20 per cent in the first 10-year period (of the professional era). Left: Gethin Jenkins in 2016 and right: Fran Cotton in 1980
Professor Bill Ribbans, consultant in trauma and orthopaedic surgery who treated Thompson while at Northampton Saints, said the professional era had ushered in a new breed of players who were bigger, stronger and faster
‘You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it.’
The lawyer leading an action on behalf of Thompson and other players suffering from early onset dementia has warned of an ‘epidemic’ in brain disease among retired professionals without serious reform of the game.
Richard Boardman said doing nothing is not an option for the rugby authorities.
He said: ‘We believe up to 50 per cent of former professional rugby players could end up with neurological complications in retirement.
‘That’s an epidemic, and whether you believe the governing bodies and World Rugby are liable or not, something has to be done to improve the game going forward.’
Mr Boardman insisted the reform proposals would not change rugby as a spectacle if implemented and said: ‘Every guy involved in this action loves the game, and they love the physicality of it.
‘The caveat to that is, since 1995 when the game went professional, the size of the guys has increased, the power, the strength, the pace of the game and therefore the collisions have increased.
‘I certainly think potentially there are things within a game that could change. If you think of the 2019 World Cup final when the ‘bomb squad’ – six 18-stone South Africans – came off the bench in the second half, that just means that the days of the 15-stone Jeff Probyn have gone.’