After England World Cup winner Steve Thompson revealed that he had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 42, Rugby authorities have been told they must make sweeping changes to the game.
A group of eight Test players intend launching a legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union, and the Welsh Rugby Union, for negligence in failing to protect them from the risks of concussions. Alongside Thompson, who has no memory of winning the 2003 World Cup, Alix Popham, the former Wales back row, and Michael Lipman, the former England flanker, have also been named in the group, all of whom have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This is a neurodegenerative disease previously known as punch-drunk syndrome. All are under the age of 45 and believe their dementia is a result of repeated blows to the head.
Richard Boardman, a solicitor representing the eight claimants, claims that rugby has been in denial about its dementia problem. They are expected to argue that rugby should have been aware of the links between repeated head injuries and long-term neurodegenerative diseases. “We know that senior figures in the game have been discussing the issue of head injuries since at least 1975,” Boardman said.
He further commented that, “Yet, inexplicably, the game’s approach to concussion seems to have become less progressive in the professional era, as evidenced by the three-week mandatory break following a concussion being reduced to just six days in 2011. Whilst health and safety has moved in the wrong direction, the professional game has become a game with increasing collisions as players get heavier, stronger and faster.”
While these are the test cases, this could lead to a larger group legal action involving more than 100 players aged from 25 to 55, who are also displaying symptoms that suggest possible dementia. The lawyers claim certain symptoms, such as depression, considerable memory loss, loss of temper and suicide attempts, are being seen in dozens of players which they say represent a “ticking time bomb”. In the test cases alone, lawyers are seeking millions in damages for the physical ailments that the players are suffering, their potential loss of employment opportunities, and the cost of future care. The group’s 15 “commandments” to rugby’s authorities include acknowledging the link between playing the game and CTE, as well as limiting contact training and reducing the number of replacements.
Popham, 41, was part of Wales’ 2008 Grand Slam-winning team and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, early onset dementia and probable CTE in April. His wife, Mel, can no longer leave him to look after their two-year-old daughter. He has stated, “I had a great career and willingly gave my heart, body and soul to rugby. I just didn’t know I was giving my mind too.”
Neither RFU nor World Rugby have received any legal approach yet, but they have defended their approach to concussion. A statement by World Rugby said, “While not commenting on speculation, World Rugby takes player safety very seriously and implements injury prevention, management, education strategies based on the latest available knowledge, research and evidence.”