9 Dec 2020

Bidwell: Rugby needs its head screwed on right

6:50 pm on 9 December 2020

Opinion - Rugby needs to be on the right side of history here.

England front row, L-R, Graham Rowntree, Steve Thompson, Phil Vickery. 2003.

Former England hooker Steve Thompson (middle) says he can't remember winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup because of a traumatic brain injury. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

News that a group of former high-profile players are planning legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union should send a shudder through the game.

The eight men, who include 2003 Rugby World Cup-winner Steve Thompson, are set to claim that the governing bodies failed to protect them from the risks of concussion.

Thompson, 42, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable CTE. Others among the eight, who are said to be a test case for hundreds of other players with similar symptoms, have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

There's plenty to unpack here and none of it reflects well on those who whinged about the game going soft when two players were sent off for high tackles in a recent Bledisloe Cup clash.

First, you feel for any player who might be suffering through these symptoms.

The more we learn about the head trauma that can be caused by playing contact sport, the more we know it's not just about being a bit foggy or suffering some memory loss.

Players are literally being crippled by these injuries. They can't stay awake, or endure loud noise and bright light. The lucky ones suffer through endless headaches and fatigue and have trouble seeing.

For those less fortunate, there is dementia or violent and suicidal thoughts. American NFL players, whose autopsies revealed CTE, have killed themselves.

We - and that's all of us involved in rugby - need to do what we can to help these men. They and their families are suffering and we all know it's because of their chosen sport.

Saying so publicly is a problem, though, and one that the game can't really afford. Rugby faces the prospect of bankrupting itself if these legal claims go the way you imagine they could.

Rugby is a tough game that's often sanitised by television.

Even up in the grandstand it's hard to get a sense of just how big and how fast players are. To appreciate how significant the contact is and what these men are putting their bodies through.

We see it on TV and kid ourselves that we could play provincial or Super footy too. That so and so is a bit cowardly or over-rated and that it's embarrassing blokes can't go 80 minutes these days.

That's nothing compared to the disgust some folk feel when they believe a player has been unjustly sent off.

All Blacks prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Australia's Lachie Swinton were both shown red cards - and subsequently suspended - for high tackles during last month's test match in Brisbane.

Critics claimed the penalties didn't fit the crimes. Sure, both players' shoulders made direct contact to the head of an opponent, but no-one was concussed or had their jaw broken.

This was an overreaction, we were told, to the growing hysteria around high tackles.

If the examples of Thompson and company, or former All Blacks such as Steve Devine, aren't enough to convince people rugby needs to do something about brain trauma, then perhaps multi-million dollar settlements might or a further reduction in playing numbers?

At some point a group of current or former players are going to prove that rugby caused them to suffer brain injuries and that governing bodies could have done more to prevent that.

We've all seen players such as Ryan Crotty and Sam Cane suffer repeated head knocks and all wondered about rugby's concussion protocols. Tell me you haven't thought 'how can these guys keep passing the Head Injury Assessments and why do they keep being put back on the field?'

Ryan Crotty leaves the field after another head knock.

Former All Black Ryan Crotty suffered numerous head knocks during his international career. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Rugby, to go back to the top, needs to be on the right side of history here.

It needs to protect those people who are playing now, look after those who have played and - perhaps most importantly - prove that it's a safe game for the next generation to play.

Am I a poor parent for allowing my son to play? Am I, as a junior coach, knowingly putting other people's children in harm's way? Am I?

As parents, could any of us live with ourselves if our children suffered brain trauma as a result of playing rugby?

I tend to be a vocal critic of professional rugby, but I am an unabashed fan of the community game and the benefits it brings people. However, we have reached a critical juncture in the game's history and the decisions made now around player safety will have repercussions for decades to come.

The diehards won't have to worry about rugby going soft. If this process isn't handled right, we won't be having any rugby at all.

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