This is obviously a hot topic and I have absolutely no expertise which would allow me to provide an educated opinion but this is the internet so that need not stop me having one. This sad news coming out of rugby league is just one of a number of recent events linking rugby, concussions and long term health issues. The biggest of which was the news that former england legend Steve Thompson and others were bringing a lawsuit against world rugby that sought to seek a link between their long term head injuries and their time playing the sport.
First thing to say is how sad it was to read some of the comments made by Thompson. Him saying that he has no memory of winning the world cup, a day you would think would be etched in ones memory forever, really sunk home the seriousness of the symtoms he was facing. With other names lending there weight to the case this is certaintly something that world rugby will have to take very seriously.
Now as I mentioned I do not have any medical knowledge to use here, sure I watched the film concussion and ejoyed Will Smiths accent as much as the next guy but I dont think this counts as expertise. What I do have however, which can also be said for the former fresh prince, is a knowledge of the NFL and its towards Americas favorite sport that world rugby may need to look for answers. The NFL has already gone through something incredibly similair but on a much larger scale with arounf 4500 ex-players ultimately linked to a lawsuit arguing that the NFL hadn’t done enough to warn them of the dangers they were facing. This ultimately lead to a settlement in the region of $700 million and a final agreement to make over $1 billion available to help retired players who were suffering. So this nicely leads us to our first issue, Rugby doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of money available to do a similair thing. The game is already in a precarious position and with the sight of fans in stadiums looking everymore distant, paying out any kind of lawsuit may be near impossible.
Outside of the money though there were changes to the way NFL teams behaved that were aimed at improving things. Full contact practice was all but removed with the number of contact days a team can have each season limited, concussion protocol was introduced to have independent (sometimes disputed) doctors verify players condtions before letting them return to action after a knock. They also tried altering the way players tackled by punishing hits that used the crown of the helmet to inititate contact, removing the often human torpedo tackling that existed (NFL tackle technique in general is a subject that would give most rugby fans a heartattack and is a topic for another day).
With concussion protcol already a thing in rugby and a very demonstrable crackdown on high tackles there is no doubt that improvements have been made but i think looking towards limiting the amount of contact outside of games should be next on the agenda. You can still practice tackle technique wihout big clashes amongst teammates. Although the high tackle is slowly be legislated out of the game (to the dismay of Owen Farrel at times) in an effort to protect the head and neck area there is still progress to be made. Primarily at ruck time.
These types of clearouts, long protested by the like of former Fiji 7s coach Ben Ryan, have the potential to cause real injury to everyone involed. Work to remove it, continue reducing contact outside of matches, ensure medical opinion is the loudest on the sidelines and i do think that rugby can come through this period and although I understand Steve Thompson’s and others anger and the intention behind the lawsuit I worry a legal battle helps neither side. Rugby will always be dangerous, of that there is no doubt but the days of excuses are over. We know the damage that can be done and the onus is on the sport to keep improving but admitting the dangers does not neccesarrily spell the end for rugby. It does however allow for people to make an informed decision to play the sport that they love knowing everything it entails.
This isnt the death of rugby but like with the NFL the nexy few months/years could be ugly with lots of honest conversations to be had. I do beileve we are already seeing the benefits of incremental improvements and the application of a vast greater knowledge base than was available in the early days of professionalism. Hopefully soon we will again be able to focus on the many positves the game brings whilst also ensuring Steve Thompson and others get the help they require and deserve.