‘Progressive Rugby’ calls for significant changes to how game is played

Profound changes called for to protect the rugby-playing community from brain injury

Ireland and Lions prop Paul Wallace is one of a number of signatories to a letter from a group called ‘Progressive Rugby,’ who are calling for significant changes to the way the game is played and organised on a global basis.

The thrust of the letter to the chairman of World Rugby, Bill Beaumont, calls for more profound changes to take place to protect the rugby-playing community from brain injury, claiming it to be greatest threat to the game.

Beaumont wrote an open letter on December 17th last outlining how World Rugby holds player welfare as its number one priority at all levels after recent accounts of former players and their experiences.

In the tackle area, the group call for a review of “double teaming” players, where ball carriers are simultaneously hit by two players from the opposing side, the upper level of tackle height as well as a timely release of ball following the tackle. The group are also calling for limiting substitutes for injury only.

The current rule allows for tactical substitutions, where more than half the team are permitted to come on fresh, usually in the second half causing an imbalance between tired and fresh players.

“The problem you have is you play rugby and you get fatigued,” said Professor John Fairclough. “The analogy is if you have Joe Calzaghe in a boxing match with Bernard Hopkins and after eight rounds you bring in Roy Jones (to fight Calzaghe). You have disproportionate physical strength. That’s when you have a problem.”

Former England players, Simon Shaw, Steve Thompson, Kyran Bracken and James Haskell, current Welsh backrow Josh Navidi and former Welsh international Alix Popham, former Canadian international Jamie Cudmore and former Scotland international Rory Lamont have also signed up to the changes.

“Of course, they are,” said Haskell when asked if modern players are more at risk. “Look at the size they are. I think they are massively at risk. When I was playing, we were doing things out of fear not out of science. It’s a dangerous game, a contact sport. It is a game of who controls violence. You might not like it.”

Life on the line

Former Clermont player, Cudmore, spoke of “the club putting my life on the line” and cited “puking in Twickenham while getting stitched up and asked to go back on the field.”

Included too were medics Dr Barry O’Driscoll, Professors Fairclough and Bill Ribbans and well as British Labour Party MP Chris Bryant, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for acquired brain injury.

In returning to play following a head injury, the group are also seeking to extend the minimum number of days before a player is back on the pitch competing to at least three weeks as well as mandatory comprehensive screening as in other sports after recurrent concussions.

Post retirement player welfare is also addressed and the body advise that a concussion fund be established by World Rugby, that ownership of a player passport should be developed and a more empathetic relationship with insurers should be agreed.

Much attention has recently fallen on England’s 43-year-old former hooker Steve Thompson, who played in every game of the 2003 World Cup but cannot remember the final, which England won. Thompson has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Progressive Rugby have requested to speak with senior figures in World Rugby to discuss how they can work together to control an issue “that threatens the very future of our game”. They have also asked for an independent “broad church” of experts to appraise current research, risks, and protocols in the game.

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