Rugby is warned it faces dementia ‘epidemic’ without immediate change

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Rugby Is Warned It Faces Dementia ‘Epidemic’ Without Immediate Change Rugby Is Warned It Faces Dementia ‘Epidemic’ Without Immediate Change
England’s Steve Thompson is part of a group launching a legal action, © PA Archive/PA Images
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By Jamie Gardner, PA Chief Sports Reporter

Rugby faces a dementia “epidemic” among retired professionals without serious reform of the game, the lawyer leading an action against the sport’s authorities has warned.

Richard Boardman, who is representing an initial group of seven players including 2003 England World Cup winner Steve Thompson, says doing nothing is not an option.

Thompson, 42, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and says he has no recollection of his part in England’s glorious campaign in Australia 17 years ago.

 

Boardman says that, regardless of the outcome of the planned legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, immediate reform is required to prevent more players suffering in the way Thompson is.

He told the PA news agency: “We believe up to 50 per cent of former professional rugby players could end up with neurological complications in retirement.

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“That’s an epidemic, and whether you believe the governing bodies and World Rugby are liable or not, something has to be done to improve the game going forward.

“We can’t do trial by media, so now we’ve announced the litigation we’ve got to take a step back.

“But immediate changes need to be made to the game to protect the current generation and future players. The collisions are just as big now, the speed of the game, the workload, and there’s nothing to suggest what’s happened to Steve and Alix (Popham) and Michael (Lipman) won’t happen to current and future generations.”

Alix Popham has been diagnosed with early onset dementia (David Davies/PA)

Like Thompson, former Wales number eight Popham and ex-England international Lipman are in their early 40s and suffering from early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Boardman said the initial group could increase to 10 or 11 former players in total later this week or early next week, and that he is working with a group of 110 ex-players overall, ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s.

The individual claims of the smaller group would be heard first before an application can be made for a larger group litigation order, he said.

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“We’re sending the letter before action to the other side (the governing bodies) later this week or early next week and then quite rightly they will have a chance to go away for a number of months and reply,” he added.

“It’s worth emphasising that this is just the opening salvo of the action – there’s a very long way to go, nothing has been resolved, we’ve not even engaged in opening conversations yet with the other side.”

For all concerned, the diagnosis has been devastating.

The NFL reached a settlement worth over half a billion pounds with players who had suffered brain injuries and, while Boardman could not put precise figures on it, he said that in cases of early onset dementia, the care costs were considerable.

“We’ve got a lot of guys in their early 40s, and by the time they get into their 50s a lot of them will be unable to work and will require a lot of healthcare,” he said.

“So the quantum for such claims will be considerable, certainly in the seven figures.”

Boardman insisted the reform proposals would not change rugby as a spectacle if implemented and said: “Every guy involved in this action loves the game, and they love the physicality of it.

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“The caveat to that is, since 1995 when the game went professional, the size of the guys has increased, the power, the strength, the pace of the game and therefore the collisions have increased.”

One of the commandments called for players’ unions to be more independent, with Boardman saying it was a “conflict of interest” that over 90 per cent of the Rugby Players’ Association’s funding came from the RFU.

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