Players suing over concussion are in danger of receiving less than they deserve

Mark Regan and Phil Vickery
The welfare of Phil Vickery, right, and Mark Regan and the other 293 claimants must come first - Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images)

The devil, as ever, is in the detail. The disclosure that Phil Vickery and Mark Regan are among 295 former players who are taking legal action has once again thrust rugby’s concussion lawsuit into the spotlight.

Fears about the safety of the sport are not going away. Who could blame the mums and dads standing on the sidelines at mini rugby sessions on Sunday morning for wondering if their children should be taking part in the sport?

World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union face the prospect of being sued for not putting in place reasonable measures to protect the claimants’ health and safety, leading to conditions such as motor neurone disease, early-onset dementia, epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

Yet frustratingly for all concerned in reality there has been little recent progress at all, save for the partial lifting of an anonymity order at the Royal Courts of Justice which led to a list of 226 players being released on Friday night, including a dozen England internationals and more than 30 Wales Test players.

It is now three years since the original lawsuit was launched but hopes that it would move beyond a case management hearing – to set out the parameters of the matters that will be disputed at trial – on Friday were dashed because of the lack of availability of full medical records beyond self-reported symptoms.

“Unless these medical reports are based properly on the individuals’ medical records and history, we are in a very difficult place,” said the senior master in the case, Jeremy Cook, who criticised both parties for “passing like ships in the night”, for their lack of communication and collaboration.

The lack of progress, given that this was the second case management hearing, with a third to follow now in April, can only lead to fears that there are still years to run if this goes the full course.

If it has taken three years to get to here, one can only wonder how long it will take to prove a link between rugby incidents and the symptoms, given the variety of life experiences of the individuals, some of whom have also played other sports – and whether there was blame associated with the actions of the unions.

It is hard to see World Rugby, the RFU or WRU, conceding any ground either, given the implications.

The fear is that both sides are too far entrenched in their position to reach any sort of compromise before then, in which case the fear is what impact that will have for the ex-players involved and the negativity that will cloud the sport.

Which is why surely for the best of the players there must be some sort of a middle way. It is time for the ships to meet. If not a settlement, then World Rugby could surely make a significant gesture by setting up a major fund to improve the care for former players who are suffering with health issues and provide greater education and support – from the start of a professional career to the finish.

For at the heart of this matter is not just those former players who are suffering but also the future of the sport. If the mums and dads of the next generation of players are to be reassured that rugby union remains a great game to be part of, and for the elite few who go on to play professionally, a safe career to pursue, the handling of this case is critical.

The worst possible outcome would be a lawsuit that runs for years, at which the end point comes when the players are recommended to agree to a low-level settlement because the evidence is not strong enough, and legal fees have to be covered.

World Rugby insists it cannot reach out to the players at the heart of the case because the legal action prevents them from doing so but that they care “deeply about their struggles” and that “they are members of the rugby family”.

Perhaps it is time for kind deeds to follow kind words – and a dose of realism too from the legal representation of the claimants as to what is possible and the consequences of a long, drawn-out court case. The players must come first. They deserve nothing else.

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