Rugby has been desperate to persuade its detractors that it is as safe as any contact sport can be. This is a school of thought that can no longer be given the time of day. With 226 named claimants now suing its governing bodies over neurological injuries, the game’s attempts at reassurance have never felt so flimsy. There is a chilling estimate by Richard Boardman, a lawyer pursuing the case, that as many as one in two elite players could wind up with some level of impairment to their brains. As he puts it, not even the gladiators of ancient Rome would have signed up for this.
It has been harrowing to hear Steve Thompson’s admissions that he cannot remember winning the 2003 World Cup, the crowning feat of his or any player’s life. But it turns out that he is not the only alumnus of that England side to allege that rugby has left him with brain complications. He is not even the only member of the front row.
Phil Vickery, the tighthead 20 years ago, is also among the players mounting legal action against a sport they insist failed to warn them of the cumulative toll of all those thousands of subconcussive blows. So is Mark Regan, the replacement hooker. Three players from one squad reporting symptoms of brain damage when they have barely hit middle age? In what world is this tolerable in the name of sport?
There was a sense at the recent World Cup that the game’s gravest peril had briefly receded. All the talk, after those two mesmeric quarter-finals won by New Zealand and South Africa, was of rugby’s breathless beauty. If this was the standard of spectacle that it could produce in its purest form, then surely its future was assured?
Seven weeks later, the revelation of the 226 names comes as the coldest splash of water to the face. The existential threat, as it is so often called, has not gone away. On the contrary, it has assumed a more frightening immediacy.
Thompson struggles with his wife and children’s names. Alix Popham reflects that he goes out to buy a pint of milk and then instantly forgets. Ryan Jones describes a sense of his world falling apart. These stories are, it seems, merely the top layer of the concussion calamity unfolding within rugby.
With the odd case study here or there, the sport could trust in an approach of denial and deflection. Indeed, for years, it has practised precisely that. As Geoff Old, the former All Black who received a diagnosis in the US of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), has reflected: “It’s just deny, deny, deny, until you die.”
But 226 names? That is the type of lawsuit that rugby cannot simply sweep away. In 2013, the National Football League reached a £600 million settlement over concussion-related injuries among its 18,000 retired players, agreeing that it would compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research.
This is a sum of money that rugby, so economically stricken that three Premiership clubs went to the wall last season, does not possess. And this is why the gathering class action represents the starkest threat to its survival.
At events such as the World Cup, the brutality inherent in rugby can be fetishised. Few moments were so salivated over, for example, as Eben Etzebeth’s pinballing of French defenders en route to his decisive try in Paris. The problem is that the highlights providing public delectation can incur a cost. The sheer size of the players, particularly at the international level where a big-is-beautiful aesthetic prevails, means that the force of the contact is magnified, sometimes with devastating results.
You still hear some of rugby’s staunchest apologists argue that those seeking legal redress knew all about the dangers they would be confronting. But this defence is becoming harder to sustain. Did Thompson ever countenance the notion, on that night of joy unconfined in Sydney, that he would be placed on suicide watch in his 40s, unable to accept the draining away of all that was precious to him?
Did Vickery and Regan subscribe to some fatalistic philosophy of “play now, pay later”? Of course not: they all longed, like every player to touch these heights, for enriching retirements. And now they see it clouded by a fog of bleakness, which an increasing body of evidence suggests is of the sport’s own making.
The question rugby needs to ask itself is: what parent would look at this shocking scroll of names and not feel some pang of alarm? Yes, rugby can bring priceless life skills to players at all levels. This is its most cherished and distinguishing attribute. But the misery of brain injury as a potential flipside? That is not an equation to which the uninitiated would gladly subscribe. And you see it already in the plummeting participation numbers, not just in England but in New Zealand, where rugby is a secular religion.
Four former All Black captains have agitated for change, believing the game is too violent, too wedded to high-velocity collisions. This is the view of people who adore rugby, not those who wish to talk it down.
I have a family member who was on the fringes of becoming a full international in his country but who has now left the game for good in his 20s, having experienced intolerable headaches. Further damage was not a risk worth taking.
And there must be many more surveying those 226 names and arriving at the very same conclusion.