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Dementia in Rugby: Making the sport safer for its players

The rugby player welfare debates and fallout continue amid the spotlight shining on the sport and its negative affiliation with neurodegenerative diseases in its former players. How can rugby offer better and more suitable care to its athletes that play such a brutal sport.

Last week, news broke that a group of former rugby union players were starting the process of suing the authorities for leaving them with permanent brain damage. The group included England Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson who claimed that he had lost his memory of the tournament that saw his team lift the most sought after trophy in the sport.

Similarly, former Canada international Jamie Cudmore is suing French side Clermont Auvergne, a side whom he played for between 2005 and 2016, for failing to protect him after suffering a serious injury following suspected concussion in the 2015 Champions Cup.

For both parties, the intended outcome is not that of financial benefit, but for a proactive and well considered look into how rugby can help protect the welfare of its players in the future and reduce the cases of dementia in retired athletes.

A number of proposals have been suggested, supported by important figureheads, that if introduced, could see a safer game played whilst maintaining the core and foundations that has made rugby as successful as it has been.

Regular brain checks

One of the most common requests made to rugby leaders is for regular brain checks to be introduced into the sport.

Dr Emer MacSweeney, chief executive and consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health, believes a regular inspection could be instrumental for recognising potential damage to the brain.

He said: “Obtaining an early and accurate diagnosis in any brain condition is paramount to the subsequent management and treatment pathway. Annual brain checks should become mandatory for professional players, to help safeguard against brain disease caused by contact sports.”

Stop tackling in children's rugby

Research has indicated that continuous blows to the head over a significant period of time is more likely to result in a player suffering from brain damage. This has led to many calling for tackling in children's rugby to be stopped completely and only introduced at the age of 18.

Prior to turning 18 years old, players would play touch rugby, a sport that has grown in popularity in recent years and can then make an informed decision on whether they choose to continue with this form of rugby or move into playing tackle rugby.

England manager Eddie Jones has urged the authorities to make changes swiftly and has suggested a rule change to prohibit players under the age of 12 from tackling above the hip. A similar rule change to this was introduced in football where young players aged 11 and under can no longer head the ball in training in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

"There was a suggestion for under 12s that we make players tackle underneath the hips and that's one thing I think they should start doing straight away," said Jones.

"To ensure that young players learn safe, low tackle technique that becomes their staple tackle as they progress through the grades."

Create a better understanding and knowledge of brain injuries in rugby

Cudmore's injury in 2015 highlighted a negligence issue surrounding those who are in charge of taking care of its players. It is thought that he suffered from 'second-impact syndrome', which is defined as the brain swelling rapidly from a second concussion before the previous one can subside.

"In my case I was puking in the changing room in the 67th minute of a game," he started.

"Do you really need to put the player back on? Well they did, they allowed me to go back on and unfortunately that's not good enough.

"In this day and age, if you do that with a young child you can kill them and we've had numerous instances of this happening and nobody should get to that point in their sporting careers and be that injured by someone's negligence."

Undoubtedly, the issue of dementia in rugby will rumble on, just as it has done for many years but for its athletes who are subject to playing a sport that could have health implications in their future, they must hope that change is enacted sooner, rather than later.

Author: Jake Wilkin