Steve Thompson: I wish I had never played rugby

Steve Thompson: I wish I had never played rugby - MARK PINDER
Steve Thompson: I wish I had never played rugby - MARK PINDER

Steve Thompson, the former England forward who has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and cannot remember being part of the 2003 World Cup triumph, says that he now wishes that he never played rugby.

The University of Glasgow published a landmark study on Tuesday which showed that former international rugby players were at a dramatically increased risk of dementia, Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease, echoing similar studies in association football and American football.

As a result, brain disease in rugby as well as football is now being formally investigated as a potential industrial disease, with campaigners adamant that they have overwhelming evidence for urgent approval.

They now want immediate action to reduce contact training and limit the schedule, but also recognition from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council so that families of suffering players can finally receive statutory financial help.

The scale of the issue was laid bare on Wednesday when Thompson detailed the impact that his degenerative brain condition had on normal life.

“I’d say ‘no, it wasn’t worth it’ because I’d rather not be such a burden on the family,” he told BBC Breakfast. “I’m really scared because it is just getting worse. We have just scratched the surface. There are going to be thousands.

“There’s been a problem there, bubbling away, and now it has just burst. I had three people contact me last weekend, they are struggling, marriages splitting up. It’s not the big concussions, it’s the small concussions. We want to save the game – it is a tremendous game. We have got to try and make it survive.”

Thompson added that rugby had “just scratched the surface” and that there would be thousands of similarly affected players.

Steve Thompson playing in the 2003 World Cup - Steve Thompson says he would 'rather not be such a burden on the family' - SHUTTERSTOCK
Steve Thompson playing in the 2003 World Cup - Steve Thompson says he would 'rather not be such a burden on the family' - SHUTTERSTOCK

An application was first made with regard to football in January 2020 after former professional players were found to be 3.5 times more likely to suffer a degenerative brain disease, with a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease. Former international rugby players were found to be 2.7 times more likely than the wider population to suffer degenerative brain disease, with motor neurone disease 15 times more prevalent in the ex-elite players.

The survey predominantly looked at rugby players from the old amateur era, when there was less training, matches and head impacts, prompting warnings of a forthcoming epidemic of problems among the modern generation.

National guidelines state that a disease must be at least twice as prevalent in a particular industry to be recognised as an industrial illness and there is growing frustration at the ongoing wait for an official decision.

Having neurodegenerative disease formally recognised would allow former players to make a claim for industrial injuries disablement benefit, as is the case with more than 70 other diseases included in the scheme. This is a capped weekly benefit paid to people who become disabled because of an accident at work or due to certain prescribed diseases caused by their job.

“It is no longer possible to ignore this life threatening issue and its ramifications for contact sports – rugby is now aligned with football as sports which both cause brain injuries,” said Dr Judith Gates, the founder of the charity Head for Change who, with Dawn Astle, made the original application to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, an independent scientific advisory body which reports to the government. The council have now agreed to look at rugby as well as football.

“With the advent of the professional era in 1995, with an increased dosage of head impacts, alongside the increased physicality of a game, it is frightening to predict just how much the incidence of subsequent brain disease will increase in subsequent research,” said Gates.

“The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council should surely have enough research evidence to prescribe dementia etc. from contact sports as an industrial disease. The sporting governing bodies should surely exercise their duty of care to players. Tomorrow will be too late for today’s players.”

'Traumatic brain injuries in sport are an epidemic'

The wider call is for change to how sports are played, so that there are fewer training drills with head impacts, a reduction in the match calendar and assessment of how rules could evolve to reduce head impacts.

Richard Boardman, the solicitor who is leading a legal action against World Rugby, said that “the issue of traumatic brain injuries in the sport is at an epidemic scale and is an existential threat at all levels, be that elite, amateur or youth”.

James Drake, the founder of a charity which funds research into neurological disease, said the Glasgow research was of particular concern because it focused on players from the amateur era and yet still found such increased risk.

“We know that the modern, professional game is stronger and quicker, posing potentially even greater risk to player welfare, so we urge authorities to put further measures in place to significantly reduce players’ exposure to head impacts in both matches and training while research continues,” said Drake.

Dr Eanna Falvey, who is World Rugby’s chief medical officer, said that the governing body had invested more than €10 million (£8.73 million) in welfare studies and had established an independent working group to evaluate new research and potential changes to the game.

“We will continue to build on this work in our quest to make our game as safe as it can possibly be for players at all levels within the rugby family,” he added.