The legal action against rugby union’s authorities took a decisive step forward on Thursday, when the firm representing nine players diagnosed with long-term brain injuries sent pre-action letters of claim to World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union. Rylands Law also revealed the identities of two more of the nine players involved in the test cases along with Steve Thompson, Alix Popham and Michael Lipman. They are the former Wales under-20 centre Adam Hughes, and the former England under-21 back-row Neil Spence.
The developments come as the former England captain Dylan Hartley spoke out about the lack of education in rugby around the risk of dementia. “From when I started until last week, I didn’t know dementia was a potential outcome for any rugby player,” Hartley said on RugbyPass’ Offload podcast. “That wasn’t educated or taught to us.” Hartley admitted he was having his “own problems” with concussion in retirement, but said he didn’t want to reveal more about them.
Hughes, 30, is the youngest player involved in the action so far. He has been diagnosed with “having brain injuries and post-concussion symptoms”, and his has been told him that he is on a “similar medical trajectory” to Popham, Lipman, Thompson and Spence, who have all been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable CTE. Hughes played for the Dragons, Bristol and Exeter Chiefs between 2010 and 2018, and his experience throws doubt on the argument that the game has become significantly safer in the last decade.
Hughes was forced to retire at the age of 28 after a particularly severe concussion and is now working as a financial adviser. “It was just one head knock too many. I was finding it more and more difficult to recover from each and every bang to the head,” he said. He reports being knocked out eight times in his career. “At first it was the bigger concussions where I was completely knocked out that took me ages to recover from then over the time even the smaller ones started to have an impact. For the sake of my health, I had to bring it to a halt.”
One of Hughes’s former coaches, Rob Baxter at Exeter, said last week that the game’s approach to head injuries had improved so much in the years since Thompson, Lipman and Popham retired that “there’s almost very little value in trying to compare the two”. Hughes, who played for the Chiefs in 2014-15, told a different story. “For me, I think the biggest issue around concussions was attitude,” he said. “It was often treated like a weakness if you don’t dust yourself down and carry on.” He added that “the game still has a very long way to go in terms of education about concussion”.
Spence, 44, played in the back row for Rotherham Titans and says he has lost count of the number of concussions and head injuries he suffered during his career: “I used to judge how well I had played based on how fuzzy-headed I felt at the end of a game.” He said he suffers from “mood swings, anxiety attacks, depression and anger issues”. Four more players involved in the test cases have decided to remain anonymous. Rylands Law are already representing around 100 former rugby players, and say that 30 more have contacted them since Thompson, Popham and Lipman’s involvement was revealed by the Guardian last week.
In a statement, World Rugby, the RFU and the WRU said: “We have been deeply saddened to hear the brave personal accounts from former players. Rugby is a contact sport and while there is an element of risk to playing any sport, rugby takes player welfare extremely seriously and it continues to be our number one priority. As a result of scientific knowledge improving rugby has developed its approach to concussion surveillance, education, management and prevention across the whole game.
“We have implemented coach, referee and player education and best practice protocols across the game and rugby’s approach to head injury assessments and concussion protocols has been recognised and led to many other team sports accepting our guidance. We will continue to use medical evidence and research to keep evolving our approach.”
The pre-action letters of claim set out the broad allegations upon which the claims are based. It stated that that governing bodies had a duty “to take such steps and to devise and implement such rules and regulations as were required in order to remove, reduce or minimize the risks of permanent brain damage as a consequence of the known and foreseeable risk of concussive and sub-concussive injuries”. It also alleged that the risks of concussions and sub-concussive injuries were “known and foreseeable”, listing 24 failures on the part of World Rugby, RFU and WRU. The governing bodies have a maximum of three months from the date of acknowledgment of the Letter of Claim to provide their initial responses.