Bill Beaumont makes welfare pledge to dementia sufferers

Bill Beaumont, World Rugby chairman, has made a heartfelt address to former players who are suffering from early onset of dementia, insisting that “no player will be left behind” by the game.

A group of nine former players, including 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, are taking legal action against rugby authorities over brain injuries they have suffered during their career, claiming they failed to provide sufficient protection from the risks caused by concussion.

Beaumont, who won 34 caps for England and captained the side to a Grand Slam in 1980, had to retire at the age of 29 because of concussion and neck injuries, said the testimonies about former players had been “tough to hear” and pledged to introduce a number of new initiatives this year to “take player welfare to the next level”.

“We have continued to hear some moving personal testimonies from our game’s former servants about their fears and concerns around early onset dementia,” Beaumont said.

“These have been tough to hear – and I commend them for their bravery in speaking out. The rugby family has always supported its own – you do not retire from that family when you hang up your boots – and this is why our commitment to player welfare is more important than ever.

“To the former players who are struggling, I say your rugby family cares deeply and I will not rest until we understand how we can make rugby as safe as possible. No former player will be left behind.”

The new measures include the roll out of free-to-access brain health clinics for retired male and female elite rugby players who have concerns about their well-being, while a global consultation process will begin during the Six Nations Championship. Thought to be the first of its kind at a global level in the sport, it will include input from players, supporters, and the media to help inform shaping the future of the game.

“I want our approach to player welfare to be shaped by everyone who has a stake in our game – from fans, to players, coaches, and medical staff,” added Beaumont.

“To that end, we will undertake rugby’s widest ever consultation on player welfare, with an intention to launch this during the Six Nations.”

World Rugby is also set to act on the outcomes of the largest study undertaken using instrumented mouthguards in sport to quantify head impact exposure at all levels of the game, with results expected by May.

The program has featured training and matches involving more than 1,000 players from age grade, community and elite rugby with the Otago University and the University of Ulster.

It is thought that preliminary results are encouraging, indicating that rugby participation at community and age grade level is similar to a number of popular activities while also informing understanding of the causes of head impacts in training and match environments and how to prevent them.

The use of the technology is also to be used during the Women’s World Cup in New Zealand in October and November to inform studies on the nature of concussion for elite and community women rugby players while it is hoped that it will be made available for public use to support removal of players at risk and aid their rehabilitation.

The global law trials introduced last year to improve player welfare, including the 50/22 drop-out, goal-line drop-out and outlawing of the ‘flying wedge’ in which the ball carrier latches on to multiple support players prior to making contact with a tackler, will also be considered for adoption into law by the World Rugby council in May.

The new developments come after the government also published a 10-point action plan last month to address the issue of concussion in sport, calling for technological advancements, new concussion and training protocols. It followed an inquiry conducted by a Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee last year.

“We are taking our support for player welfare to the next level,” added Beaumont.

“We must not and will not stand still. As a sport, rugby must continue to renew our mandate from parents and players to grow participation in the game, by demonstrating progressive change.

“We will implement our brain health action plan, invest to better identify and manage head injuries, further promote individualized risk-based rehabilitation following a head injury, support former players who have worries about their brain health via clinics and access to specialist support and information , and to further understand any links between the game and neurodegenerative diseases. We will also sign innovative technology and research partnerships that will inform meaningful changes.

“We will continue to show up on player welfare, from our work with former players to school education and global roll out of evidence-based injury prevention programs such as Tackle Ready and Activate.

“Like many sports, rugby is not a game that is risk-free. But it is a sport that cares deeply for and prioritises its players, in particular around concussion and head injury, and will continue to do so.

“I want parents across the world to view rugby as a game that they want their sons and daughters to play, because of the many benefits it brings. Those benefits have been thrown into stark relief by their absence during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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