Exclusive: World Rugby hits back over concussion lawsuits and questions legal action

·10-min read
Exclusive: World Rugby hits back over concussion lawsuits and questions legal action - PA
Exclusive: World Rugby hits back over concussion lawsuits and questions legal action - PA

World Rugby has hit back in its first public response to the concussion lawsuit brought by former players, casting doubt on the numbers involved and criticising their tactical recruitment.

The sport’s global governing body has until now remained silent on the growing number of past players who have taken legal action over an apparent failure to protect them during their careers from the risks of early on-set dementia, with legal documentation submitted last month to World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union.

But speaking exclusively to Telegraph Sport, World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin:

  • Said the governing body believes the number of players involved is smaller than the near-200 reported

  • Hit out at the apparent targeted use of the media to recruit new complainants

  • Claimed those affected should engage with World Rugby rather than take legal action

  • Confirmed talks had ended with lobby group Progressive Rugby due to members’ involvement in legal proceedings.

Gilpin stressed World Rugby’s ongoing determination to make the game as safe as possible when it comes to head impacts, and after receiving legal documentation from Ryland Legal, the sports law team responsible for those taking action, he questioned how reports of the involvement of an estimated 200 former players emerged and whether information was being given to the media in order to attract new members to legal proceedings.

"When the original action was issued to us some time ago it was involving nine players, more recently they have started to claim that number has grown significantly," Gilpin said. "It’s not, as far as we can see, in the documentation provided to us quite at the number which is being suggested in some parts of the media.

"One concern is the approach being taken by some parties in that claim to apparently use the media effectively to recruit more players into that action.

"What we would say to those players who aren’t currently part of the action is; can we have a dialogue about how we can all provide better support. It’s important that we find a way for players to have that dialogue without feeling the need to resort to legal action."

Gilpin stressed that World Rugby was already reviewing its support structures to help players post-retirement, which could avoid a potentially devastating financial battle that may alter the future of the sport.

He also took aim at Progressive Rugby - which recently issued a series of recommendations to World Rugby - and said that the involvement of some of its members in the legal case has halted talks about how a resolution could be sought.

"We’re concerned when any kind of group in the media of people involved in legal claims are making sweeping statements which are going unchallenged, and often aren’t true," Gilpin said. "We’ve had a lot of debate with Progressive Rugby over the last 12 months.

"To be honest that dialogue has now stopped, because there are a number of people we are now aware of involved in Progressive Rugby who are involved in the lawsuit, and therefore we can’t enter into the same direct dialogue with Progessive Rugby and some of those individuals as we could previously, and that in itself is a shame. But Progressive Rugby would hopefully agree that we’ve had a positive engagement with them."

Alan Gilpin wants affected players to engage with the governing body - GETTY IMAGES
Alan Gilpin wants affected players to engage with the governing body - GETTY IMAGES

Gilpin defended World Rugby’s position, arguing that it has already taken actions that will help players to understand the full risks posed in rugby and what they can do to minimise them.

"A huge part of this is education, making sure we are pointing players to where that support does exist, or providing a structure where we can listen to them. That’s why in some respects the litigation is challenging because we can’t have that conversation with the players directly because there’s a live legal case against us.

"Our message to [those players involved in the case] is very much: we absolutely care, we are listening, we are part of the debate and we want to make the right type of progress.

"We can understand why players who maybe feel like they haven’t had another avenue to pursue are pursuing that, and maybe that suggests as a sport that we need to do more to provide a network of support for former players, particularly professionals, who come to the end of their careers and have real concerns.

"That’s definitely a big call-out for us that we’re now discussing with International Rugby Players Associations, nationals RPAs and other groups how we can provide better care for players who are coming to the end of their careers or have retired, and have concerns about mental health issues or related to dementia."

In response to Gilpin, Richard Boardman, of Rylands Law, said: "We have notified the defendants a number of times as part of pre-action correspondence of the number of clients we represent. That number is, inevitably, increasing all the time as the issue of traumatic brain injuries in rugby union is given more exposure as more and more players speak out about their brain damage.

"Aside from the legal action, there are also those with an interest in the safety of those currently playing, such as the player welfare group Progressive Rugby, who raise talking points about incidents in certain recent games that further highlight the issue. One concern is that the approach being taken by some parties in the claim is to use the media exposure effectively to downplay the scale of this issue in the sport."

World Rugby must prove to players the game is safe

As a former player himself and now father to a 14-year-old rugby-playing son, Gilpin has found the recent testimonies of Ryan Jones, Steve Thompson, Alix Popham and Carl Hayman among many more just as "incredibly challenging to read" as the rest of the rugby world.

All of those players are currently part of the legal proceedings against World Rugby claiming governing bodies failed to protect players during their careers from the risks of early on-set dementia.

Gilpin and World Rugby have made extensive efforts in recent years to attempt to reduce the number and severity of head impacts within the sport, so that future players do not suffer the same fate as their predecessors.

Steve Thompson cannot remember the 2003 World Cup final - EFA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK
Steve Thompson cannot remember the 2003 World Cup final - EFA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Speaking to Telegraph Sport, Gilpin has now revealed that World Rugby hopes to convince those players who are part of the legal action, or weighing up joining, that the governing body will do more to ensure the best possible systems are in place to support retiring players concerned by the risk of degenerative brain disease.

"We always say that anyone who has been in a rugby family never leaves it, and we have to demonstrate that to the players who feel that’s not the case. I can definitely say personally not a day or hour goes by in the job that I do where we are not thinking about these issues. It’s our number one priority for a good reason," Gilpin explains.

"We’re focused on head contact, to make the game safe and make sure we do the right thing by players. We know that high contact in the tackle leads to the most concussions in the game, so we’ve had a big drive through law change, officiating and the way we teach tackle technique."

Risks to elite pros not the same at grass-roots

Discussions around concussion and reducing head impacts remain a "very detailed, complex area", Gilpin points out, but the governing body is eager to stress that head impacts in the community game "are not comparable" to professional players.

Findings from an extensive study undertaken by the University of Otago and New Zealand Rugby, set to be published by the end of the year, are expected to reinforce that head impacts in community and age-grade rugby are "very dissimilar to the elite level of the game".

Gilpin adds: "Those important experiences of former elite international rugby players are being conflated into the question of whether it’s safe for my son or daughter to play mini rugby, and they are two different debates.

"Ninety-nine per cent of our global playing population in the sport are not playing at the elite, professional level. We’re confident that the type of head impacts that are occurring in the community game are not comparable to what’s happening in the elite game."

Why mandatory stand-down periods won’t work

Gilpin, who succeeded Brett Gosper as chief executive officer in January last year, has a lot on his plate when it comes to player safety, even though dialogue with the lobby group Progressive Rugby has come to a close in the midst of the legal proceedings. While the two parties have met for discussions in the past, there remain issues where both sides are wide apart.

"[Progressive Rugby] would like to see a different approach to the return-to-play protocols," Gilpin explains. "Mandatory stand-downs... they understand why we don’t believe that’s right for the sport and we do believe the individualised return-to-play protocols are the correct way, because history will show that mandatory stand downs drive under-reporting of concussions, and we absolutely don’t want players not to come forward and report concussion symptoms because they’re worried about missing the next two or three games.

"We want concussions to be recognised and reported properly and players to be cared for based on their own factors, which is why there’s been this further evolution of the return-to-play protocols which take into account players’ concussion history, both immediate and longer term and periods of return to play are adjusted accordingly.

"That’s not driven by World Rugby making those decisions in a dark room, it’s the independent concussion expert group that we have driving those decisions based on the latest science."

There were questions over Johnny Sexton's return to the Ireland team in the New Zealand series - GETTY IMAGES
There were questions over Johnny Sexton's return to the Ireland team in the New Zealand series - GETTY IMAGES

Harsh punishments must remain part of clampdown

The 20-minute red card - currently being trialled in the Rugby Championship, given a lack of data from previous Covid-impacted seasons - remains unlikely to be trialled globally and therefore to come into law.

"Given all the issues and emphasis around concussion, particularly in the northern hemisphere, there isn’t the kind of support needed for that to move forward," Gilpin says.

"I know it’s a divisive issue, and maybe it’s been driven by a coach-led debate in the south around maintaining the spectacle of the game and not having what’s perceived as red cards ruining matches, versus a slightly different debate in the north where there’s a lot more debate around head injury and concussion."

World Rugby will also "stay vigilant" when it comes to administering red cards for dangerous contacts to the head, citing how previous drives to reduce tackles in the air and spear tackles had been successful using stricter punishments and the importance of teaching the right technique at the junior level of the game with future generations, while at the same time sympathising with players.

"We genuinely understand that very often we are talking about players making decisions in a fraction of a second around changing heights, coming into contact. It’s an incredibly challenging area."

Gilpin adds that the game's top match officials are "incredibly self-critical" when it comes towards driving consistency with red cards for contact to the head, a recent bugbear for fans during the July Tests.

"No one wants to see a World Cup determined by an officiating decision, but those decisions are crucial to the behavioural change which is needed," Gilpin concludes.