There are two main issues with the ever increasing instances of ex-players coming forward with brain injuries seemingly caused by rugby. Firstly, what can be done to mitigate the risk to make rugby safe, and secondly, exactly how many players were at risk and when?
To address the first point, it is important to recognise protocols which have been put into place within recent history. The culprit being the impact area, primarily the tackle. New rules have been introduced to keep tackles and therefore impact away from the head, neck and shoulder areas. Rules governing the ‘breakdown’ area, i.e. immediately after the tackle, have been designed to reduce the ferocity of player impacts, and finally strict protocols on head injury assessments have been introduced. Any player who is suspected to have taken an impact to the head is removed from the field for assessment. If a player is deemed to have suffered a concussion, they take no further part in that game and subsequently have to observe a period of no participation.
Rugby authorities have undoubtedly made attempts to improve player safety in more recent times. The game entered into the professional era in 1995, where participants went from training and playing part-time, to full-time. The question must be asked whether there has been a gap of sufficient player protection through procedure and protocols? Details emerging from Steve Thompson’s case indicate that perhaps there was a cavalier approach towards training regimes during those early years of professionalism. Importantly, scrutiny then shifts to what the sports authorities knew and when regarding player safety and potential brain damage.
Time will reveal the full extent of brain damage cases that may be attributed to rugby, and the demographic of these ex-players will provide clues as to when these injuries may have occurred. If there is any hint of negligence by governing authorities, potential claimants could range from ex-professionals to amateur club players over decades of rugby participation.