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Rugby authorities braced for the implications of ticking legal time bomb

Rugby is not in denial to anything like the same level nowadays but the price must still be paid for past failures to adequately protect players’ health

The ticking time bomb grows ever louder.

In the lead story in the sports section of the Sunday Times two days ago, the journalist David Walsh shed further light on the case being taken by 294 former rugby union players against World Rugby, the RFU and the Welsh RFU, by divulging some of their harrowing stories.

Clearly, Walsh has seen some or even all of the testimonies from the players which has formed part of the lawsuit being taken against the three governing bodies.

While many, understandably, prefer to retain their anonymity for the time being, Walsh interviewed five former players who were prepared to divulge their identity and share their stories. He also revealed five other cases of unnamed players.


There was Kieran Low who won five caps for Scotland and was forced to retire seven years ago at the age of 25. He told of suffering two concussions on his Scottish debut, of his life spiralling into addictions to opioids and alcohol, and becoming suicidal. He now lives in a forest in North Yorkshire with his girlfriend as it is the only place which offers him a haven from his suffering.

The majority of the cases are players from amateur, club and semi-professional rugby, such as Neil Spencer, now a teacher in his late 40s. He played flanker at underage level for England in the early noughties before embarking on a nomadic career, and in consultations with neurologists estimates that he suffered eight concussions, three of which involved loss of consciousness.

Like the others suffering from long-term brain injuries, including early onset dementia, his neurologist attributed this, on balance, to complications from rugby, and all face shortened life spans as well as reduction in quality of life.

Perhaps no example illustrates the level of ignorance within the game around two decades ago than that of the former England flanker Michael Lipman when playing for Bristol in the 2002-03 season, who has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probably CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

Lipman was concussed from a blow to the head but in attempting to play on, crawled on his knees, staggered to his feet, and collapsed. He only knew this when the episode was replayed at the video review in front of the squad two days later. All his team-mates laughed, but he didn’t and, of course, no one would now.

World Rugby cannot comment on this legal action because it is all sub judice, but there is no doubt that there is a relationship between head trauma in rugby and neuro degenerative diseases, and you just wonder if they reacted quickly enough given what happened in American Football, which resulted in the NFL lawsuit being settled for an estimated €1 billion (€913,534,000).

It now seems incredible that so much live scrummaging and contact drills were seen as normal daily occurrences, amid little or no understanding of concussion and its long-term effects.

Rugby is not in denial to anything like the same level nowadays, with the advent of the HIA, the return-to-play protocols and the campaign to lower tackle height but, listening to some public debates around red cards, you wonder if that is as true in, say, the southern hemisphere even to this day.

Ultimately the action being taken by these players probably has another year or two to run, and it would not be surprising if it is settled out of court.

No Union or Federation can claim they have done everything correctly with regard to player welfare since the game turned professional. It is worth noting that of the 294 former rugby union players who claim that the aforementioned bodies failed in their duty of care to them, they include 14 England internationals, 47 from Wales, six from Scotland and four from Ireland.

The four Irish players include David Corkery and Dominic Ryan, who have given their distressing accounts to John O’Sullivan and Denis Walsh in The Irish Times, and all four have played in the Premiership.

This is not to excuse Irish rugby of all blame but it does seem reasonable to point out that the IRFU’s commitment to player welfare should, if anything, be reinforced.

The IRFU’s player management has drawn some criticism from abroad and has been cited as an almost unfair advantage over some of their rivals. Yet it is instructive to note that all members of Ireland’s World Cup squad were granted three weeks holidays to recover mentally as much as physically.

By contrast, several players contracted to Top 14 or Premiership clubs were obliged to return to training and playing much sooner. Finn Russell was photographed in his new kit at Bath before training the Monday after Scotland’s exit when beaten in the final pool game. Some French players were back training the Tuesday after their quarter-final exit against South Africa and they were nearly all back playing within two or three weeks.

Ben Earl was England’s outstanding player at the World Cup. He played in three warm-up games, all seven games in France and completed 80 minutes in his six starts. This included England’s final pool game against Samoa, their quarter-final against Fiji, their semi-final against South Africa and their Bronze Final against Argentina. That’s four World Cup matches on four successive weekends.

The following weekend, eight days after that third-fourth place play-off, Earl and five of his England team-mates started Saracens’ win over Leicester. Last Saturday, Earl suffered a nasty-looking injury in the warm-up before their game against Harlequins and left the Stoop with his knee in a brace. The injury is likely to sideline him for a considerable while.

It is undeniable that in the Irish system Earl and his international team-mates would not have been required to resume playing for their provinces within a week of playing in the World Cup.

It was also instructive to note that, as with their open session in Trinity last week, there was no contact work at Leinster’s open session in Kilkenny yesterday. This has been their stated commitment under Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, and one imagines it may be new terrain for Jacques Nienaber.

This probably represents the future; no contact work in training and even less games per season than is currently the case even in the Irish system.

Henceforth, if anything the IRFU should double down on its game management of their contracted players, stressing to players and their agents that whatever financial shortfall from plying their trade in the Irish system, it will reap its rewards for their long-term physical and mental health. In knowing their grandchildren as well as their children. No amount of money can pay for that.