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'Sad and scary' - There is only one topic on the rugby world's mind

The words of Steve Thompson, Alix Popham, and Michael Lipman have rocked the professional game.

Former England hooker Steve Thompson alongside Graham Rowntree [right].
Former England hooker Steve Thompson alongside Graham Rowntree [right].
Image: PA

Updated Dec 10th 2020, 8:00 AM

THERE WAS ONLY one thing on the minds of rugby folk around the world yesterday.

The testimonies of Steve Thompson, Alix Popham, and Michael Lipman – who have been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE] – will stick with everyone in the game for some time to come.

The trio of ex-professional and international players in their early 40s are part of an eight-strong group considering legal action against rugby authorities on account of the serious damage that has been done to their brains by careers in rugby. 

The lawyer representing this group has indicated that there are many more players hovering in the background waiting to see what happens next.

As yet, it’s understood no Irish players are part of the core group but several former professional players from these shores who were forced to retire due to concussion have been contacted. The rugby world waits to see what happens next.

So it was difficult to concentrate on the usual media interactions yesterday ahead of this weekend’s opening weekend of the Heineken Champions Cup action. There was talk of tactics, selection, cohesion, and stadiums but the words of Thompson, Popham, and Lipman were ringing around everyone’s minds.

And so it was no surprise that Munster and Harlequins’ virtual press conferences in advance of their clash on Sunday in Thomond Park featured plenty of discussion of this deeply worrying subject.

Munster assistant coach Graham Rowntree played with and against Thompson, as well as later coaching him, and was visibly distressed by what the ex-England hooker has revealed about the state of his brain.

“It’s scary stuff, yes it is. It’s more than scary, it’s saddening,” said Rowntree.

“It’s quite unsettling really. I played in that era, I had concussions. I played alongside Steve, played against Steve, coached Steve. He’s a mate. It’s just horrible, it’s proper saddening to hear that news. What can I say?

“But what I do know – the game has moved on. The players are looked after now, in particular concussion protocols, the way the game is refereed in terms of zero tolerance for high shots, etc.

“I have every confidence in how it’s handled now. All our protocols are in place as a club and a sport, I am very confident about that. But it’s sad news.”

rugby-union-heineken-cup-pool-five-bath-rugby-v-toulouse-the-recreation-ground Michael Lipman receives treatment while playing for Bath. Source: PA

Rowntree’s point about the game having moved on was echoed across the board, including by Quins scrum-half Danny Care, who played with Thompson and Popham.

“It was fairly shocking to hear Steve and Alix telling their stories, I played with Alix in Leeds and Steve with England. It’s really sad.

“I’d say it’s a bit worrying, a bit scary really. 

“However, I feel lucky in a way that rugby has come an awful long way in the past 10 years on this aspect. Rugby concussion modules and education from 2010, then in 2015 the HIA got introduced, so player welfare is something that has been looked at.

“I feel lucky in that and I feel sorry for the lads previously who didn’t have that. We have Hawkeye and independent match doctors who are watching for collisions. The relationship from players, coaches, medics, fans, staff, everyone has realised how big an issue it is and it has been taken out of the players’ hands, which is the best thing for the players.

“I’m just hoping for players my age’s sake that the rules that have been brought in will benefit us in the long run.”

Munster fullback Mike Haley never played with the men now dealing with early onset dementia, but he too was jarred by their accounts.

“It’s incredibly sad, it’s tough to read what they are going to have to go through. You wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” said Haley.

“It is interesting because it wasn’t that long ago, but rugby has tried its best to develop, you know, the red cards and penalties, there are no tip tackles, anywhere around the head is deemed a yellow card now and they are really trying to look after you there.

“But then at the same time, people are probably thinking back about when they were playing and this is coming out now, so it’s a hard read and it’s just something we will just have to see how well it unfolds.”

Indeed, what happens next is the big question. World Rugby and national unions could be facing into legal actions and the $1 billion NFL concussion precedent will be causing them major concerns.

There is no doubt that rugby has made strides when it comes to brain injuries over the past decade but this group of ex-players are asking the sport to do more. 

Firstly, they want World Rugby to openly accept that playing professional rugby can lead to CTE and other neurodegenerative diseases.

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rugby-union-rbs-6-nations-championship-2007-france-v-wales-stade-de-france Ex-Wales back row Alix Popham. Source: John Walton

Other proposed measures are to decrease the number of substitutes and limit the amount of contact players are doing in training – which seems like a measure that could be brought in very quickly indeed.

“It would be hard to reduce it from where it is at the moment because we don’t do a lot,” said Harlequins boss Paul Gustard.

Interestingly, Gustard explained that Quins use ProTecht gumshields, which measure the force that is exerted on players’ bodies. 

“We get a full picture of the amount of Gs a player experiences in the game, the grading of the contacts – from low, medium, to more severe – and we’re able to modify the player’s load during the week.

“This is a really neat device that allows us to track and tailor players’ workloads. We’ve had five or six guys this season where we’ve modified their week based on the information from these gumshields.”

Currently, only three of the 12 Premiership clubs are signed up to use these gumshields but it seems likely the technology will become more prevalent in the professional game.

From a player’s point of view, Care stresses that he would be willing to do anything that helps to prevent more cases like the ones we have learned about this week.

“I can only speak for me personally but if there is any way we can make the game safer, then I’m all in,” said Care. “I see first-hand the size of collisions these boys are putting themselves through, especially the big boys that are scrummaging and then getting up and running into brick wall after brick wall. 

“If there’s any way we can help limit contacts to the head or pressure to the head, then I’m all in because the last thing we want to see is more cases like Michael Lipman, Alix Popham and Steve Thompson.

“It’s sad in the game we all love to see people like that struggling at such an early age.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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