Latest lawsuit shows brain injuries are factor at all levels of rugby

<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

It’s been a fortnight since the letters of claim went out in the latest round of legal action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union. Here in the Guardian we ran an interview with one of the claimants, 48-year-old Alex Abbey, who was diagnosed with probable CTE in 2015, 12 years on from the end of a club rugby career in which he suffered multiple concussions. Abbey is one of 55 former amateur players involved in the case. It is a much smaller group than the 225 former professionals involved in the first lawsuit we reported on in 2020, but, for the authorities, it could be even more damaging.

The 225 are, in the large part, men who played top-level club rugby in the years soon after the game turned professional, an era when they had professional workloads, but amateur attitudes, outdated coaching methods and, as often as not, oblivious medical care. The 55, though, are a more diverse group. It includes men who played club rugby before the game turned professional in 1995, women who played international rugby more recently, but still before their version of the sport was professional, former youth players who never graduated to the senior level, as well as the family of a deceased player who was diagnosed with CTE postmortem.

Related: Rugby league tightens concussion rules but has no plans to lower tackle height

The circumstances of the first cohort meant you could get away with wishing the problem was largely confined to a group of people who played at a particular place and time. The group of 55, though, are drawn from across all levels of the sport. Their involvement means the issue isn’t just for people you see playing on TV. It has reached right into your local rugby club. In fact there are people working on the defence who have had to recuse themselves from the case because it turned out they had played recreationally with, and against, some of the claimants. The lawsuit doesn’t just have a potential impact on hundreds of professional players, but hundreds of thousands of amateur ones.

The game is already withering. Playing numbers are down. The latest Sport England data shows the number of adults who play has dropped every year from a peak of 681,700 in 2017 to 294,400 in 2021. The large part of that decline is due to the pandemic, and the numbers will probably pick up again in the next set of figures. But the RFU also conceded in its recent annual report that the decline is part of “a trend we were seeing before the pandemic”. It has launched a bunch of initiatives to try to reverse it. What it doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, quantify, is the effect that these legal cases, and increased awareness about the risks of brain injury, have had on participation.

The “existential threat” to the sport is in how people perceive it, in whether weekend players still believe the risks are worth it, and parents are confident it is safe for their children.

This was all part of the background to the RFU council’s recent decision to lower the tackle height to waist-level across the community game. There were briefings that the council was considering making this change at the end of December, and the decision itself was taken on 16 January, but it was announced, by press release, on 19 January; later on the very same day the news broke about the new lawsuit. Whether this was coincidence or not, the upshot was the next day’s headlines were not about the RFU’s alleged negligence in failing to protect its share of those 55 players, but what it was doing now to try to make the game safer.

That backfired. The unilateral decision to lower the tackle height to waist level turned out to be a misstep in the right direction. The RFU failed to provide enough evidence to persuade anything like enough of the people affected by the change that it was the best way to make the game safer. Eight days later it admitted that it was a mistake to rush out the announcement without consultation. The RFU has now agreed to “begin a series of forums and workshops with players, coaches, match officials and volunteers, to explain and develop the details of the domestic law variation”. It would have spared itself a lot of bad publicity if it had announced something similar to begin with.

Because the sport does need to change. I’ve done too many of these interviews in the years I’ve been reporting on this issue, with Alex Abbey, Michael Lipman, Alix Popham, Steve Thompson, Dan Scarbrough, Paul Pook, and others, to believe anything else.

Like most of the rest, Abbey spoke hauntingly about how he loves rugby for everything it gave him, and how he also hates it for what it took along the way. He is a qualified coach, and still gets asked whether he wants to get involved again in that side of it. “I can’t bring myself to because I don’t want anyone to have this” is the brutal answer. “If it is continued collisions that cause these problems, I can’t coach rugby. I’d love to, it’s a great game, it’s given me lots and lots of things, I would be a different person if I hadn’t played, I wouldn’t be as resilient as I am, and I wouldn’t have the friends I do, but I can’t square it.” It is the same dilemma facing everyone who loves playing, and watching, the game.