New Zealands' winger Rico Gear is tackled by Wales' Alix Popham (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Can we save rugby?

Will rugby recover from financial and physical injuries?

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Fifteen matches over five weekends in February and March, each laying down another layer in rivalries which mostly go back more than a century. The simple iconography of white, red, green and three shades of blue. Thousands of rugby fans good-naturedly drinking various European capitals dry. Welcome to the Six Nations, one of the best annual sporting events in the world and a reliably effective antidote to the winter doldrums.

The long-term problem of brain injury is an existential threat to the wider game itself

This year, however, the storm clouds are hovering, for rugby is a sport in crisis. Two Premiership clubs, Wasps and Worcester Warriors, went bust last autumn, and several more are hanging on by their fingertips: few clubs made a profit even before the Covid pandemic, and all of them are trying to recover from the effects of that time. Former Harlequins chief executive Mark Evans says that “the only clubs with any security are the ones with an owner who is prepared to keep pumping cash in. That’s not a business plan, is it? That’s a game on life support.”

Rugby has a relatively affluent and engaged fan base, but this isn’t reflected in commercial and broadcast income. And the position of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), which is responsible for the England national team but which also runs the domestic club game, puts it in a tricky position with regard to Premiership clubs: it is both regulator and rival, and self-evidently cannot and should not be both. “We’ve had twenty-five years of pro rugby now,” said one anonymous owner, “and the model is bust. This is a moment to reset the dial.”

Whether rugby can do so will depend on more than simple finances: for the long-term problem of brain injury is an existential threat to the wider game itself, not merely the professional peak of a large grassroots and recreational pyramid.

Several former players are now suing their governing bodies, including the Welsh international, Alix Popham, who has early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CPE), and Steve Thompson, part of the 2003 England World Cup winning team.

That tournament is a blank for him: six weeks in Australia, the greatest moment of his sporting career, and he can’t remember a minute of it. “[We were] bits of meat,” Thompson says of the culture back then. “If someone got a dead leg or a hamstring, it’s like they can’t train. But if you got a bang on the head, it was like, ‘don’t worry, you’ll be alright, you’ll get over it. Just get back in there.’”

Tellingly, men like Popham and Thompson are part of the first generation since the sport became professional in the mid-1990s. Since then, players have become bigger, stronger and quicker, and the game has increasingly revolved around repeated forceful contacts at speed, bringing not just obvious concussions but also the more insidious cumulative effect of hundreds or thousands of subconcussive impacts every season.

Participant numbers are already declining: the last pre-pandemic figure for England was 228,400 in 2019, a 12 percent drop from three years previously

Glasgow University researchers have found a doubling of risk for dementia and a more than tenfold increased risk of developing motor neurone disease among former rugby players (and this is leaving aside more commonplace effects of brain trauma such as anxiety, anger issues, depression and suicidal tendencies.) Richard Boardman, one of the lawyers involved, says “up to one in two [professional players] will end up with some kind of neurological impairment. Even gladiators in Rome wouldn’t sign up to that.”

Rugby is very much a middle-class sport in England, Scotland and Ireland (less so in Wales), which means that parents of children going into the game — think of how many doctors and lawyers will be among them — will be very active in their safety concerns and potentially very litigious too. Participant numbers are already declining — the last pre-pandemic figure for England was 228,400 in 2019, a 12 percent drop from three years previously — and if schools gradually find themselves unable to field teams, that will knock on (forgive the pun) to clubs and universities very quickly.

There are plenty of options being considered to make the game safer: longer mandatory stand-downs after head injury, less or no contact training, fewer matches, fewer substitutes, a limit to playing time per season, longer off-season breaks, and so on. Where the line ends up being drawn will demonstrate not just how sanguine we as a society are about the inevitability of risk, but also the extent to which we let commercial imperatives trump player welfare.

Those who insist that that every endeavour has risks and so the game should continue exactly as it is miss the point that these are life-changing problems with huge ramifications not just for the sufferers but their families too. Those who would ban rugby altogether or water it down to non-contact ignore the game’s many benefits: camaraderie, teamwork, respect for the opposition and the referee, a sport for all shapes and sizes, and a controlled environment for what would otherwise be uncontrolled conflict.

But something must be done. “For this great sport to continue for another 100 years-plus,” Boardman says, “we have to accept that the brain is a delicate organ which needs heightened protection, and as a sport we have to err on the side of caution.” Popham concurs. “We need to draw a line in the sand, realise the mistakes that were made and move forward: because otherwise the sport is going to die.”

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