Concussion in rugby: time for compensation and change?

The spectacular aspect of rugby and the positive values it conveys have made it one of the most popular sports among the general public. Paradoxically, the growing popularity of the oval ball is still held back by the complexity of its rules, which have been constantly evolving since professionalization of the sport back in 1995.

The numerous changes introduced, such as the rules to enter the scrum, the introduction of the concussion protocol, the tougher penalties for high tackles, or the rules to obtain touches through footwork, were implemented essentially because the significant increase in muscle mass, cardio ability and speed of the players, have led to more frequent and harder impacts. The medium and long term effects of those tougher impacts are becoming increasingly apparent.

[Cross reference to the article The experimentation of the “orange” card in rugby].

More and more testimonies from former internationals (e.g., Steve Thompson, Ryan Jones, Jamie Cudmore, Carl Hayman), and even active internationals (Joe Marler), alerted the world of rugby and the general public to the considerable impact that repeated concussions can have on the health of players (repeated pain, cognitive disorders, early dementia, etc.)

These devastating effects unfortunately tend to be corroborated by recent studies, and in particular a study conducted by Imperial College London on 44 players, financed by the Drake Foundation, which found that approximately 50% of professional rugby players present an unexpected change in their brain volume related to head impacts, and that nearly a quarter of them present abnormalities in their brain structure. Other studies, including one launched in Argentina on a panel of 140 players over a period of twelve years, will certainly further confirm the need to change the rules of this sport.

The complaint filed on 25th July 2022 by a group of 180 former British internationals against World Rugby and the English and Welsh rugby federations, and the complaint filed very recently by three former players against the Irish federation, show that it is no longer time to raise awareness. Instead, it is time to offer financial compensation. Other complaints will likely follow soon, and a comprehensive reflection about the indispensable and urgent changes that need to be made, is needed, to ensure this sport can be practised without putting its practitioners at considerable risk.

In this context, can we be reasonably optimistic about significant risk reduction? Neurologist Jean-François Chermann believes great progress is still possible. He advocates in particular, for a significant reduction in the number of games the players participate in each season. Watch this space.