It is almost three years to the day since the England 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson sent shock waves through the sport by revealing that he had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, and opened the door for hundreds of other players with similar stories.
At the high court in London on Friday, up to 295 players – including Thompson – will apply for a class action lawsuit as they attempt to take a major step forward in their legal battle with rugby union’s governing bodies. The players, who are seeking damages from World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) for negligence and failing to protect them, are applying for their cases to be heard together as a group litigation order (GLO). That, in essence, would mean their compensation claims become one group action case, rather than hundreds of individual claims, in any future hearings. The case file is understood to refer to 268 players, with another 27 issuing proceedings earlier this week and who would be included under a GLO.
However, several hurdles lie ahead. It may take until February or March for the GLO to be granted, and a full hearing may not take place before the end of 2024. Crucially, the players will then have to prove on the balance of probabilities that the game’s authorities are directly to blame for their conditions.
The players’ solicitor, Richard Boardman, has insisted that the governing bodies were negligent, as they failed to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent brain injuries caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows.
“This is about a systemic failure by the governing bodies, those at the top of the pyramid who create and enforce the rules and regulations,” he said. “It is not limited to a one-off breach, but instead it is about the whole ecosystem that the sport’s governing bodies have put in place.”
The high court is expected to hear two other applications from the players’ legal team. The first concerns whether some claimants can remain anonymous in future hearings, while the second regards whether their legal team can use 45 cases in a future hearing as a proxy for all 295 players.
That last point is expected to prove particularly contentious given that in GLO cases both sides have to agree. Boardman said that the 45 cases contained a full range of different diagnoses, as well as male and female players, international and amateurs, and cases from before 2011 and after.
However, in a statement, World Rugby, the RFU and the WRU made it clear the two legal teams were still at loggerheads.
“We remain saddened to hear the stories of former players who are struggling,” they said. “Despite court orders to do so, the players’ lawyers have yet to provide full details of the claims being made against us.
“Therefore we cannot comment on the ongoing legal action, nor reach out to the players directly. We would want players involved to know that we listen, we care and continue to champion player welfare as the sport’s No 1 priority.”
The players involved in the action were offered support by the former England international Courtney Lawes. “I do feel for those guys, especially because you just didn’t know at the time what sort of repercussions there would be from playing rugby,” he said. “It’s not like they signed up for it, because they had no idea. I suppose none of us do really, but if you’ve got some awareness you might think twice.”
But the 34-year-old, who retired from the international game after the Rugby World Cup, also said: “There’s never going to be no concussions. We play a physical contact sport, a rough game. As long as people understand that there are risks in playing this game, they can make a decision whether they want to do it.”