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Rugby injuries: How dangerous are they and what should players avoid?

BY Yasmin Rufo

25th Oct 2022 Sport

Rugby injuries: How dangerous are they and what should players avoid?

As claims of rugby injuries leading to early onset dementia head to the courts, Yasmin Rufo asks why governing bodies have been so slow to react

Rugby injuries and tackles can often look painful to spectators, but our minds are put at ease as players get back up and continue playing. However, there is a deeper and darker side to some injuries. They may not be obvious at the time, but these invisible injuries can have devastating consequences for players later in life. 

Earlier this year, Ryan Jones, a former Wales rugby captain, shared his diagnosis of early onset dementia aged just 41. He joins a long list of other players, including England hooker Steve Thompson and Wales player Alix Popham, who have been diagnosed with cognitive illnesses due to playing the contact sport.

"These invisible injuries can have devastating consequences for players later in life"

Now, these players, alongside 182 others, are taking legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union as they claim the governing bodies failed to protect players from permanent injuries caused by concussive blows. 

What is the link between contact sports and brain injury? 

The link between contact sports and brain injuries has been researched for many years and goes beyond rugby. Several boxers and footballers have been diagnosed with dementia pugilistica (DP), also known as punch-drunk syndrome, caused by repetitive blows to the head. 

Head injury

There is a link between contact sports and brain injuries

With the evidence showing that contact sports increase the chances of early-onset cognitive problems, why have rugby governing bodies not yet acted?  

Although players issued rugby governing bodies with a pre-action letter of claim in December 2020, there have been very few changes to the sport. One possible explanation for the silence on the matter is not wanting to alter rules for fear of reducing the enjoyment of the game for its spectators (14.5 million people tuned in to watch live Premiership Rugby during the 2021/22 season, a number far higher than in previous years). 

A “ticking time bomb”

As the standard of rugby continues to improve, the intensity and number of collisions do too. The players' lawyer, Richard Boardman, has called the neurological injuries sustained by the sport a “ticking time bomb” as hundreds of players may end up with illnesses ranging from dementia to epilepsy to Parkinson's as they get older. So far, almost 200 former rugby players have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and CTE. 

"As the standard of rugby continues to improve, the intensity and number of collisions do too"

Capped 75 times and a member of the British Lions Squad, Ryan Jones was diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in December 2021. 

After receiving his diagnosis, he told the Sunday Times: “I feel like my world is falling apart. I am really scared because I’ve got three children and three stepchildren and I want to be a fantastic dad. I'm not able to perform like I could, and I just want to lead a happy, healthy, normal life. I feel that's been taken away and there's nothing I can do.” 

Is player welfare being prioritised?

The slow response from governing bodies to the claims of early-onset dementia highlights the lack of player welfare in the sport. Jones has accused the union of “walking headlong with its eyes closed into a catastrophic situation” as it ignores this glaring problem.

The potential long-lasting impact of injuries is causing concern for some younger rugby players.

Rugby

The response of governing bodies to the long-lasting impacts of injuries has been slow

James Davies, a young Swansea RFC player, says the latest research that rugby players are 15 times more likely to develop motor neurone disease are “disconcerting and worrying for many players”.

“I suffered a concussion last year in a game and as a result suffered headaches and concentration issues for weeks after. If this happened to me again, I would consider whether I want to keep playing. It makes you think whether it is really worth it.”

What is being done?

The Alzheimer’s Society recently launched a partnership with the Rugby Players’ Association to help past and present players living with dementia or caring for others with the illness.

Since the pre-action letter, World Rugby has extended its return-to-play period for players diagnosed with a concussion from seven to twelve days. However, more must be done to ensure players are fit to return to the pitch after injury. 

"Players in contact sports will continue to be at risk of early-onset cognitive diseases unless sporting bodies act now"

Governing bodies should take responsibility for what is happening and implement immediate changes such as limits on contact in training, reducing playing seasons and scrapping non-injury substitution limits. The current head injury assessment also needs reviewing. Bodies should have a more effective and strict protocol that diagnoses head injury trauma immediately. 

Hundreds of players in contact sports will continue to be at risk of early-onset cognitive diseases unless sporting bodies act now. The institutions that these players dedicate their lives to should not be the ones to let them down the most.

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