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Steve Thompson, England’s World Cup winning hooker (42) and Alix Popham (41) a former Wales flanker have recently been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy. There are a number of other former professional rugby players with the same diagnosis. These players are set to take legal action against rugby’s governing bodies alleging that they have suffered brain damage as a result of suffering several concussions and sub-concussions whilst playing rugby.

Richard Boardman, a lawyer with Rylands Law who is representing them described the injury as one resulting from a number of sub-concussions sustained in each match. Mr Boardman said in relation to the case of Alix Popham.

“The bottom line in the case of Alix is that he has to make around fifty head contacts a game, in tackles, rucks and mauls but it does not have to be concussive because those gentle dings in the head add up. These guys are retiring with hundreds of thousands of sub-concussions.”

The claimants in the action allege that rugby’s governing bodies had a duty of care to them to protect them from long term mental impairment.

The physical nature of the game is, of course, a significant part of its appeal. The problem is that as the players grow in size, get physically fitter and stronger, the physicality aspect of the game takes an ever more important place. For anyone who has ever watched a professional rugby match, they will be only too aware that the tactics involved in defending the line and regaining the possession are very much about bringing an intense physicality to the game. In essence, the more physical a side can be the more likely they are to dominate the opposition and thereby win the game.

Whilst the signs are that rugby’s governing bodies will vigorously defend any claim made, the case has already led to significant debate in the rugby world about whether the game is safe and what needs to be done to make it safer at the same time as not losing its enduring appeal of being a physically hard but yet fair game.

Measures are already being considered to alter the players training regime to reduce the risk of exposure to big hits. The workload of the top players who will be involved in both domestic leagues and at international level is to be reviewed and all safety protocols such as the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) are to be tightened up such that protocols are in place to ensure they are adhered to at all times by all coaching staff and those involved in the game.

The outcome of the litigation could well have significant implications for the sport at all levels and not just at the professional level. Doctor Willie Stewart, a Consultant Neuropathologist at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow has undertaken research which produced very clear evidence that there is a direct link between the head knocks sustained in rugby and brain injury – specifically in encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a brain condition which was first recognised in American footballers. Willie Stewart, after considering his research concluded that: -

“We’ve got evidence of high levels of dementia now in sport and …… from pathology studies, which says that part of this dementia pathology in these individuals is CTE which is a pathology encountered in this type of brain injury.”

Bill Sweeney, Chief Executive of the RFU indicated that he considered the brain injuries sustained in American football was quite different from that in rugby in the context of brain injury.

Richard Boardman expects the proceedings to be hard fought and protracted. He said, “Let’s face it, the other side will come back very, very strongly, we are not so naïve or expecting anything different but right now we are very comfortable with our position”. 

The rugby world and indeed the sporting world are watching this litigation with great interest. If the claimants are successful then the only real conclusion is that those players currently playing professional rugby which one has to assume is being played at an even higher intensity than it was in the days of Steve Thompson and Alix Popham are clearly at risk of sustaining a similar type of injury in the future. The flavour of the conversations taking place in the rugby world, it seems clear that changes will be made but the question is really whether or not those changes are such that they change the nature of rugby or indeed all contact sports so radically that they ultimately lose their appeal and with it the fans!

If you have suffered an injury and think that you may have a claim, please contact us to discuss the matter on 0800 808 5309 or complete our online enquiry form and a member of our team will get back to you right away.

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