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‘Act now on rugby players’ safety – don’t kick the can down the road’



A huge number of ex-rugby players have reported suffering signs if neurodegenerative diseases

Action must be taken now to protect current and future generations of rugby players from brain injury – labelled as “the greatest threat to the worldwide game” – a newly-formed group of players and professionals from the sport has urged.

Progressive Rugby unites representatives from throughout the game – from former England international James Haskell through to Dr Barry O’Driscoll, a former advisor to the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) – in backing calls for more to be done to ensure the safety of players. 

In an open letter to Sir Bill Beaumont, chair of World Rugby, the group says the organisation has a “moral and legal duty to minimise risk and to inform players and parents of the risk of brain damage from repeated knocks”.

Furthermore, it states that if nothing is done now, “the alternative is to ‘kick the can down the road’ for future generations”, urging the sport to follow the example of the NFL, which has “metamorphosed from a sport in denial to a proactive organisation”.

The group’s comments come as the pleas for urgent reform within the sport increase, with a group of former players – including England World Cup winner Steve Thompson – who are experiencing early-onset dementia symptoms preparing legal action against rugby’s governing bodies.

“We consider in view of the evidence of risk for traumatic brain injuries occurring in Rugby Union that more should be done to protect the rugby-playing community from the dangers of injury and that World Rugby has a moral and legal duty to minimise risk and to inform players and parents of the risk of brain damage from repeated knocks,” the group said in its letter.

Along with the call for action, the group outlined a plan of action to improve overall safety and protect players.

These proposals include a limit on contact in training, restricting match substitutions to injured players only – to reduce the amount of times fresh players are making high impact tackles on tired players – and a guaranteed minimum number of days off between seasons.

They would also include a career ‘health passport’ for players and increased education at all levels regarding head injuries and concussion management.

To help safeguard players from grassroots level up, training packages established to teach safe tackling techniques for young players.

Furthermore, the group recommends an extension of the minimum number of days before a player is allowed to return following concussion, under Return to Play rules, should be set at at least three weeks.

“We firmly support the core physicality that comes with an 80-minute game of rugby union and understand that the game cannot be turned back to a ‘rose-tinted’ memory of the pre-professional game,” the group concludes in its letter.

“Our proposed changes are essential to ensure the survival of the game in terms of long-term player welfare and playing numbers at all levels.

“The NFL has metamorphosed from a sport in denial to a proactive organisation with initiatives like concussion funding and changing protocols to the game, such as the regulation of contact in training, concussion spotters and a concussion tent at each game.

“Despite the current negativity surrounding the game, there is an opportunity for rugby to turn the page and follow the example of our American cousins. The current and future generations of players require urgent action to be assured that they will be adequately protected and cared for.”