It may already be too late for some players
Another week, another rugby head injury story. This time it's a 55-year-old man from Southampton, John O'Neill, who's been suffering from early onset dementia for the last five years. O'Neill spent two decades playing first team rugby for his local club, and his family have been told this may have caused Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain disorder which is linked to dementia.
CTE has been traditionally linked to boxers but two years ago Dr Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropsychologist at Glasgow's Southern Central Hospital, said he'd seen a case caused by a rugby injury and speculated, "In any Six Nations weekend one or two players may go on and develop a dementia they wouldn't otherwise have been exposed to."
And last year Damian Bailey, a professor of physiology and biochemistry at the University of South Wales who has carried out a study involving 280 players, stated that "the negative effects of repetitive concussions can conspire to impair the way players can remember and formulate ideas. So it accelerates brain aging and potentially increases susceptibility to early onset dementia."
When you link these stories to the recent retirements of former Irish internationals Declan Fitzpatrick and Kevin McLaughlin due to repeated concussions, it's hard to escape the feeling that a terrible crisis is looming for rugby union.
Because while the use of performance enhancing drugs in the game is something which can be tackled by the sport's authorities through a more serious approach to testing and harsher penalties for offenders, it's hard to see how the concussion crisis can be solved in the same way.
The fundamental problem is that rugby players have got bigger and stronger over the years to such an extent that when you look at matches from the 1970s and '80s they seem to have been played by an entirely different species. The pace in those amateur days was more relaxed too; these days the pressure is unrelenting, the big hits not just harder but more frequent. Last season, concussions were up by 59 per cent in the Aviva Premiership.
It's not a question of if, but of when the various rugby unions are confronted with the first big legal cases. Irish rugby has liked to boast of its increased success in attracting young players, attributing this to a parental admiration for what it sees as its higher level of sportsmanship. It remains to be seen whether parents will remain quite as admiring when a link between rugby and brain damage is conclusively established.
But the most frightening thing of all for rugby is not what lies in the future. It's to do with the past. Because with the increase in concussions over the past decade, the chances are that we're only going to see the real damage when the current generation of players reach their 50s and 60s. Whatever rugby does next, for many players it may already be too late.
Sunday Indo Sport
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