Adam Hughes exclusive: 'We are not trying to destroy rugby – we want to save it'

·5-min read
Adam Hughes exclusive: 'We are not trying to destroy rugby – we want to save it' - PA/ALAMY
Adam Hughes exclusive: 'We are not trying to destroy rugby – we want to save it' - PA/ALAMY

There is a school of thought that the legal proceedings brought against World Rugby by nearly 200 players will financially cripple the game.

That’s the short-term view of the concussion epidemic which has engulfed rugby, but while the main priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of its players, they are also attempting to protect the game they love.

Adam Hughes is a former professional player, who plied his trade for Exeter Chiefs and Welsh club Dragons, before retiring in 2018. The Welshman is one of the nearly 200 players to take legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union, and the Welsh Rugby Union.

Hughes is well-qualified to talk about the dangers of repeated head knocks having been advised by medical professionals he is on the same trajectory as Alix Popham, Michael Lipman, and Steve Thompson, who all have traumatic brain injury, early-onset dementia and probable CTE.

In an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport, World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin hit out at the apparent targeted use of the media to recruit new complainants, while also claiming those affected should engage with the governing body rather than take legal action. But while making the game safer is his priority Hughes feels World Rugby need to realise these legal proceedings are also aimed at ensuring the sport has a meaningful future.

“We aren’t a bunch of guys who want the game to disappear,” said the 32-year-old. “We all love rugby and very much enjoy watching it. There’s certainly no vendetta here at all.

“I honestly feel the game is at a crossroads and rugby really needs to take the right turn. What these ex-players are doing is carving a future for the game.

“With more former players getting diagnosed with horrible conditions like early onset dementia parents are going to keep their children away from the game. This is something World Rugby needs to wake up to because that would really cripple the game.

“I’ve played at professional level and refereed it at grassroots level. I’ve seen the rot and the issue with participation at lower levels with first team and second team rugby.

“Hopefully with all this media attention surrounding the long-term health risks of concussion and head knocks World Rugby will start to make meaningful changes but as it stands, they haven’t done this.”

'There are some games where I can't remember what happened'

Hughes has suffered badly with the after-effects of concussion since his retirement and has openly admitted not being able to remember certain parts of his career due to the consistent head knocks, he received on the field of play.

One part of Gilpin’s interview which really irked Hughes was his claim that head knocks in the community game aren’t “comparable” to those sustained by professional players.

Concussion lobby group Progressive Rugby recently published a seven-point plan to limit brain injuries which includes a minimum 21-day non-negotiable blanket stand down after a brain injury, irrespective of the players concussion history, but Gilpin favours an individualised return-to-play protocol.

Hughes favour Progressive Rugby’s approach. “Given the way the game is now, and the number of players that are coming out I don’t see any harm in World Rugby being more risk averse,” he said.

“For me that seems to be the most obvious and safe way to go about things now as we reassess and learn more about concussion. Why don’t we air on the side of caution to begin with, and you can always bring back a player for player basis in the future the more we learn and understand about it.

“I think for now just being cautious is in everyone’s best interests but also the game in general. The biggest worry about head injuries is it is almost a point of no return.

“There are certain games I’ve played in where I can’t remember a thing that happened, so I really think they need to be far more cautious because there is a lot at stake.”

Only last month former Wales captain Ryan Jones revealed he had been diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 41, following on from former England internationals Thompson and Lipman along with ex-Wales international Alix Popham.

Adam Hughes exclusive: 'We are not trying to destroy rugby - we want to save it' - PA
Adam Hughes exclusive: 'We are not trying to destroy rugby - we want to save it' - PA

Despite World Rugby claiming they are doing all they can to make rugby safer, Hughes insists they aren’t doing enough. “The most disappointing thing on what I read was there wasn’t really too much about how they are going to make the game safer or potentially what we can do to help the guys,” he said.

“I know they said to contact them directly but make of that what you want. There’s very little acknowledgement and more finger pointing which is disappointing when you are waiting for them to make this reply after so long.

“They are questioning things which aren’t quite as important as the numbers involved. People aren’t interesting in tic for tat like that.

“They know exactly how many people are involved. What the rugby public want to know is what are World Rugby going to do to make the game safer, to make it more successful, and to stop the rot we currently have in participation levels.”