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

Alix Popham played his club rugby for teams such as 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 terms.

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

Popham added: “I’m not a doctor but if it was me 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 began Against the Rugby Football Union, Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby bodies over the brain damage suffered by their clients.

The group of players, represented by law firm Rylands Legal, have sued for negligence, alleging that playing the sport caused brain damage.

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

When legal action was launched, the sport’s authorities insisted that they “care deeply about all our players” and “have never stood still when it comes to their welfare”.

They also highlighted protective strategies designed to “prevent, identify and manage head injuries”.

Popham also spoke to BBC Sport about his conversations with former players in the week leading up to the start of the domestic professional rugby season.

“It’s pretty tough sometimes when I have phone calls from players I used to play with and they’re in a very dark place,” he added on the podcast.

“There’s been a few where we’ve had to get professional help to their house on a Sunday afternoon.

“This is the real coal face we’re dealing with with some of these players. If I help one person, I know we’ve helped, but there’s so much more.

“And that’s why we do this. We have to draw a line in the sand, own up to the mistakes we’ve made and move on, otherwise the sport will die.”

World Rugby defended its record on concussions and outlined new protocols that respond to ongoing research, including smart mouth guards this season that can measure the frequency and nature of head contact and accelerations in matches and training.

Players do not routinely undergo brain scans, but World Rugby’s medical director Dr Eanna Falvey said if a player had “decreased neurological function” doctors would be “forced to investigate”.

He added: “If you have someone who has definite evidence of decreased neurological function, they would not continue to play. Never.”

Current governing body protocols in place to try to limit head injuries include:

  • Head injury ratings are used during matches to see if a player is fit to continue
  • they instituted rest weeks to limit playing time for internationals
  • Players have a minimum of 12 days out of action new rules they have been brought this summer

The new protocols follow recent research into rugby by World Rugby’s independent concussion panel.

What else has World Rugby said?

Dr Falvey said: “Am I sure we are doing everything we can now? I absolutely am.

“We are working with the data we have, all the information we have. Not only that, we are creating our own data. We are the only sport that has done this kind of work with instrumented oral appliances. .

“We’ve provided mouthguards to every team in the Premier League, every team [women’s top tier] AP15. Next year we will do the same in the Currie Cup and the Farah Palmer Cup.

“We’re a pioneer in this area, so I’m sure we’re doing as much as we can. We’ll keep improving, we’ll keep working and we’ll act on it as information becomes available. Don’t sit back, I’m absolutely sure of that.”

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

When asked if restricting players’ weight is an option, he said: “Absolutely. We’ve seen that done quite successfully in the North Island of New Zealand, because some of the differences between kids develop faster than their own age group.

“Realistically, everything should be on the table here – anything we can do to make playing the game safer and more engaging, allowing people to benefit from being out with the team.”