Diverse player list makes scale of damage clear in lawsuit against World Rugby

<span>Photograph: Abaca Press/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Abaca Press/Alamy

It isn’t a secret any more. The identities of 207 more of the players involved in legal action against World Rugby, and the English and Welsh national unions, have been revealed, and, for the first time, the size and scale of the damage done is becoming clear to the public. It is a diverse list, a mix of men and women, amateurs and professionals, from a range of eras, with various conditions. But they have three things in common: they have all been diagnosed with neurological damage, they all allege it was caused by rugby, and they are all seeking damages from the authorities, accusing them of negligence.

Some played for the British & Irish Lions, some for England, some for Wales. Phil Vickery is one, Gavin Henson another, Mark Regan a third, Colin Charvis a fourth, Ian Gough a fifth, Harry Ellis a sixth. Some, like Duncan Bell, Paul Volley and Paul Sampson, were stalwarts of club rugby, and will be known, and loved, by many who follow the domestic game. Others were recreational players, people you won’t have heard of but who you might well have lined up with, or against, if you were ever a weekend player yourself.

Related: Phil Vickery and Gavin Henson among rugby players in brain injury legal claim

There are 42 more who are still protected by an anonymity order, because of the concerns about the effect disclosure would have on their mental health. That tells you what a hard moment this must be for many of the men and women whose names have just been made public. The revelation came about, in part, because the defendants chose not to object to it. It was better, they reckoned, to have all the names come out at once instead of allowing them to be released one by one in the media, which is what has been happening for the past three years.

The defendants seem to be tired of fighting the case on TV or in the papers; they want to do it in court instead. Court 75 of the Royal Courts of Justice, to be specific, a low-ceilinged, strip-lit room, with a stopped clock on the wall. Susan Rodway KC, representing the claimants, turned to check it, at one point, when trying to decide how much time she had to work in, and found it was useless to her.

The proceedings themselves have stalled too. The claimants have provided more than 5,000 pages of documents. Senior master Jeremy David Cook seemed, when he first took his seat, a little bewildered by the walls of ringbinders piled up around him. “We should begin with a little housekeeping,” began Rodway. “You should have four binders …” but even this point, the very first of the day, seemed to be open to debate. “I have rather a lot,” Cook replied, casting about at the teetering piles of files. “A huge number, actually.” After five minutes of back-and-forth it turned out that the four binders had, by some kind of binary fission, multiplied into 12 because they were so voluminous.

Unfortunately the medical records required (and previously requested) by the defence during disclosure weren’t among them. This, Cook said, meant “a fundamental and conventional feature was missing” from the submissions. Cook said that there was no doubt in his mind that the case was suitable for some form of group litigation, but that its exact structure still needed to be agreed, and that couldn’t happen until everyone had access to the medical records. As it was, the defence hadn’t yet been able to come up with its own ideas about which cases among the hundreds ought to be put forward as best representative of the rest. He set a date for the next hearing in late April.

Gavin Henson on the ball for Wales against Ireland in the 2005 Six Nations
Gavin Henson, pictured in action for Wales against Ireland in the 2005 Six Nations, is among the new names revealed to be part of the lawsuit. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Cook spoke in hot spurts punctuated with exasperated sighs. He had the general air of a hungry man enduring a waiter’s long explanation about the menu when all he really wanted to know was whether he could please have a cheese sandwich. He had, he explained, expected all this to be settled already. “It seems to me,” Cook continued at one point, “to be absolutely basic.” Across the back rows, the defendants’ legal team all nodded their heads in synchronised agreement. World Rugby, the RFU and WRU, are fielding first and second and third XVs of suited and booted lawyers and assistants, and they all wanted to mark the claimants’ homework.

They are bullish. But you wonder if they are really listening to their own press statement, which said, “We must not forget about the people and players at the heart of this case. The legal action prevents us reaching out to support the players involved, but we want them to know that we care deeply about their struggles, that we are listening and that they are members of the rugby family.”

Kind words. But they will sound awfully hollow to some of the suffering players unless they are followed by caring actions. World Rugby, the RFU and WRU may think they have a case to fight, but in doing so they can’t lose sight of the fact that they have a game, and a lot of wounded men and women, to look after too.