Rugby v Its Players: shadow of brain injury case looms over the sport

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Already there is a smack of Tier 1 versus Tier 2 in the contest we might call Rugby versus Its Players. Forget about talent, forget about justice; resources tend to hold sway. Which is not to say there is no hope for the 295 union players who applied for a group litigation order (GLO) on Friday, far from it.

Apart from anything else, they are clearly in need of compensation for their conditions, which somebody is going to have to pay. The defendants in the dock – World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union – would appear the most obvious parties responsible. Where it will become more contentious is whether those conditions are a result of negligence on the part of those defendants – or, as some of the more strident theories contend, a tobacco-style cover-up. Over to the courts.

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If we ever get there. The preliminaries suggest that the GLO is likely to be granted, but not before the players’ legal team set their papers in order. Crushingly outnumbered by the rows of lawyers representing the three defendants, they suffered an early lecture from the ref. “It seems to me to be absolutely basic,” said Senior Master Cook of the medical records the players’ legal team were supposed to have supplied by now. Court adjourned for April. Out in time for lunch. Ouch.

Meanwhile, the defendants’ lawyers are already posturing as if they are confident of a win. This should not be seen as good news for those of us who want nothing but for the game to survive. The best-case scenario is a settlement before this case goes to court, which would not be before 2025. But if the defendants feel as if they can win – and as if they cannot afford to fork out for a meaningful settlement anyway – we could indeed be faced with the grisly prospect of Rugby v Its Players coming to a courtroom near you.

The sport’s image already feels as if it has been taking a hammering every bit as relentless as that meted out to its players in the normal course of a match, but wait until its governing bodies send in their lawyers to dismantle the evidence of its fallen heroes. In this case, the evidence is no more or less than their actual lives.

Imagine a ruthless KC interrogating Player X over their alcohol consumption, Player Y over drug use or Player Z over repeated concealment of their brain injuries as they did whatever they could to stay on the field in their playing days. Imagine confused, burly players in the dock reduced to tears by the very governing bodies who are supposed to look after them, whose repeated mantras about player welfare and No 1 priorities have long clanged hollow.

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Such scenarios, however hypothetical at this stage, should make any right-thinking citizen seethe with anger just in the imagining of them, even if the almost-inconceivable possibility that the players’ conditions are unrelated to rugby turns out to be true. But the governing bodies would have no choice but to go hard in their pursuit of victory, which by definition means their pursuit of defeat and humiliation for the players.

Rugby very definitely would not be the winner. Any victory in the courts – and victory for the governing bodies is a perfectly plausible outcome – would be pyrrhic, the damage to the sport’s reputation almost as devastating as the very concept of neuro-degenerative conditions arising is to its future viability.

If nothing else, though, such proceedings should underscore the risks involved in playing a collision sport. If players know and understand those, so the defenders of the faith argue, they can decide for themselves if they want to play on. There may be something in that for the grown-ups – so long as best practices are observed in the recognition and treatment of brain injuries. But that line does not work with the kids.

Adult rugby will soldier on, whatever the outcome of this case. It is in the schools where the sport’s future will be decided. Already it feels, certainly in the little corner of the rugby world where I reside, as if there has been a sea change in attitudes, both among those playing and their parents. School rugby bears no comparison to its equivalent in the last years of the amateur era.

Professionalism may be restricted to the adult game, but its ethos pervades. Those not wholly committed must drop out sooner or later, for their own health as much as anything.

In order to play school rugby to any level of proficiency these days, from around the age of 15, one needs to be well-acquainted with the inside of a gym. There are conditioning programmes to be observed by players at even the mid-ranking schools.

Given some at that age are to all intents and purposes adults physically and others still very much children, the prospect for injury, whether to brain or bone, is already alarming. Sprinkle in the concerns of parents and, lest we forget, the demands of public exams, and it should not come as any real surprise the game will soon face a reckoning in the schools.

If in a couple of years’ time we must also watch the guardians of the sport eviscerate its former players, their lives in ruins as it is, in a court of law, we might as well switch off rugby’s lights now. This case is incredibly important for the players concerned and those to come and incredibly dangerous for the sport. Let us hope the protagonists on both sides know what they are doing.