Rugby concussion: Players with worrying brain scans ‘should be forced to retire’

Rugby concussion: Players with worrying brain scans ‘should be forced to retire’

Alix Popham
Alix Popham played club rugby for sides such as Newport, Leeds Tykes and Brive

Players showing signs of serious brain damage should be forced to retire, says former Wales striker Alix Popham.

Popham, who retired in 2011, was diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 2019.

He says he regularly talks to current players about their own situations.

“I’ve had them in my kitchen, they’ve had it [brain] scanners and they’re not good,” Popham, 42, told the newspaper Sports Desk Podcast.

Popham added: “I’m not a doctor but if it was me I’d take it [the decision of continuing to play] from them and it shouldn’t be their decision.”

Lawyers representing more than 185 former rugby players, including Popham, have started legal proceedings against governing bodies the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby over brain injuries suffered by their clients.

The group of players, represented by law firm Rylands Legal, is suing for negligence, claiming that playing the sport caused brain damage.

Popham and former England World Cup winner Steve Thompson were among six other former players who first started the process of making a claim in December 2020.

When the trial was launched, the sport’s authorities stressed that they “care deeply about all our players” and “never stand still when it comes to welfare”.

They have also highlighted their protection strategies designed “to prevent, identify and manage head injuries”.

In the week the domestic professional rugby union started, Popham also told BBC Sport about his ongoing talks with former players.

“It’s pretty tough sometimes when I have phone calls from players I used to play with and against and they’re in a really dark place,” he added on the podcast.

“There have been a few where we have had to get professional help to their house on a Sunday night.

“This is the real coal face we’re dealing with some of these players. If I help one person, I know we’ve helped – but there’s a lot more out there.

“And that’s why we’re doing this. We have to draw a line in the sand, realize the mistakes that were made and move on, because otherwise the sport will die.”

World Rugby defended its record on concussions and pointed to new protocols that respond to ongoing research, including this season’s rollout of smart mouthguards that can measure the frequency and nature of head contact and accelerations, in matches and training.

Players do not have regular brain scans, but World Rugby’s chief medical officer Dr Eanna Falvey said if a player had “impairing neurological function”, doctors would be “obligated to investigate”.

He added: “If you have someone who has defined evidence of reduced neurological function, they would not continue to play. Absolutely not.”

The governing body’s current protocols in place to try to limit head injuries include:

  • head injury assessments used during matches to see if a player is fit to continue
  • rest weeks introduced for internationals to limit playing time
  • concussed players have a minimum period of 12 days out of action after new rules was brought in this summer

The new protocols follow the latest rugby-specific research from World Rugby’s independent concussion task force.

What else has World Rugby said?

Dr Falvey said: “Am I convinced that we are doing as much as we can right now? I absolutely am.

“With the data we have, we act on all the information we have. Not only that, we create our own data. We are the only sport that has done this kind of work with instrumented mouthguards.

“We have offered instrumented mouthguards to all the teams in the Premier League, all the teams in [women’s top tier] AP15. We will do the same in the Currie Cup and the Farah Palmer Cup next year.

“We’re a leader in this area, so I’m absolutely sure we’re doing as much as we can. We’ll continue to improve, we’ll continue to work on this and as the information becomes available we’ll act on it because we don’t stand still, I’m sure of that.”

Falvey said he would not rule out changes to the laws of rugby to protect players at all levels.

Asked if restricting the weight of players was an option, he said: “Absolutely. We’ve seen it done quite successfully in the North Island of New Zealand because of some of the differences in kids developing faster than others in their own age group.

“Realistically, everything should be on the table here — anything we can do in a way that makes it safer to play the game and more attractive to play the game that allows people to get the benefit of being out there with the team.”

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