Rugby concussion: Players with worrying brain scans ‘should be forced to retire’

Alix Popham
Alix Popham played his team rugby for the likes of Newport, Leeds Tykes and Brive

Players showing signs of serious brain injury should be forced to retire, says former Wales striker Alix Popham.

Popham, who retired in 2011, was diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 2019.

He says he regularly talks to current players about their own circumstances.

“I had them in my kitchen, they had them [brain] scans and they’re not great,” Popham, 42, said Sports Desk Podcast.

Popham added: “I’m not a doctor but if I was I’d take it [the decision of continuing to play] from them and it shouldn’t be their decision”.

Lawyers representing more than 185 former rugby union players, including Popham, have legal proceedings were initiated against the governing bodies of the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby for brain damage suffered by their clients.

The players’ group, represented by law firm Rylands Legal, is suing for negligence, claiming the sport caused brain damage.

Popham and former England World Cup winner Steve Thompson were among six other former players who first started the claim process in December 2020.

When the legal process began, the sport’s authorities stressed that they “care deeply about all our players” and “never stand still when it comes to welfare”.

They have also highlighted safeguarding strategies designed “to prevent, detect and manage head injuries”.

In the week the domestic professional rugby season began, Popham also told BBC Sport about his ongoing talks with former players.

“It’s really hard sometimes when I get phone calls from players that I played with and against and they’re in a really dark place,” he added on the podcast.

“There were some that we had to get professional help into their home on Sunday night.

“That’s the real trick we’re dealing with with some of these players. If I help one person, I know we’ve helped – but there’s a lot more out there.

“And that’s why we’re doing this. We have to draw a line in the sand, realize the mistakes that were made and move forward, because otherwise the sport will die.”

World Rugby has defended its concussion record and unveiled new protocols that respond to ongoing research, including this year’s launch of smart mouthguards that can measure the frequency and nature of head contact and accelerations in matches and training.

Players do not routinely have brain scans, but World Rugby’s chief medical officer, Dr Eanna Falvey, said if a player had “reduced neurological function”, doctors would be “obligated to investigate”.

He added: “If you have someone who has established evidence of a decline in neurological function, they would not continue to play. Absolutely not.”

Current governing body protocols to reduce head injuries include:

  • head injury assessments used during matches to determine if a player is fit to continue
  • Rest weeks were instituted for internationals to limit their playing time
  • Concussed players have a minimum period of 12 days out of action afterwards new rules were introduced this summer

The new protocols follow the latest rugby-specific research from World Rugby’s independent concussion task force.

What else did World Rugby say?

Dr Falvey said: “Am I confident that we are doing everything we can at the moment? I absolutely am.

“With the data we have, we act on all the information we have. Not only that, we create our own data. We’re the only sport that has done this kind of work with mouthguard instrumentation.

“We provided instrumented mouthguards to all Premiership teams, all of its teams [women’s top tier] AP15. We will do the same in the Currie Cup and the Farah Palmer Cup next year.

“We’re a pioneer in this area, so I’m absolutely confident that we’re doing everything we can. We’ll continue to improve, we’ll continue to work on it and as the information becomes available we’ll act on it because don’t stand still, I’m absolutely sure that this”.

Falvey said he would not rule out changes to rugby’s laws to protect players at all levels.

Asked if restricting players’ weight was an option, he said: “Sure. We’ve seen it with great success in the North Island in New Zealand because of some differences in kids growing at a faster rate than others in their age group.

“Realistically, everything has to be on the table here — anything we can do in a way that makes the game safer and the game more attractive that allows people to benefit from being out there with the team.”

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