World Rugby’s somewhat belated but nonetheless welcome initiative on brain health awareness launched on Wednesday, with an impressive list of big guns involved.
Three experts in the field, Professor Craig Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh, Dr Fiona Wilson of Trinity College Dublin and Dr Willie Stewart of Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow were front and centre of the Brain Health Initiative video released by the governing body.
These are big hitters, for sure: Dr Stewart has also been very active in driving to get the various football authorities to study repetitive concussion injuries in that sport. He was also part of the successful campaign to reduce contact times in professional rugby training.
🎥Great to partner with top experts and @WorldRugby on the Brain Health Initiative, a global education campaign to increase understanding of the importance of brain health.
— InternationalRugbyPlayers (@IntRugbyPlayers) November 17, 2021
For players, they got the most authoritative possible, former Lions and Wales centre Jamie Roberts.
Quite apart from his career as one of the most impactful and physical players of his era, Roberts is a qualified doctor, has four degrees and is currently studying postgraduate at Cambridge.
Part of the reason for the time this has taken has been to bring everyone into the room. The initiative has the support of the International Rugby Players association, and of course all the unions.
Murrayfield long active in concussion awareness
When a message is promoted and displayed from grassroots rugby to @BTMurrayfield home of Scottish Rugby it helps change culture.
Logos on shirts are a constant reminder to do the right thing and have created many conversations around the subject. pic.twitter.com/U33Jozg7Hm
— Ben Robinson (@peterrobinson86) November 16, 2021
Simultaneously with the World Rugby announcement, Scottish Rugby released a video aimed at community rugby, where of course there are no HIA checks and independent doctors waiting in tunnels to check on head knocks.
In the club, youth and schools game, the campaign is “If In Doubt, Sit Them Out” which was first promoted by Peter Robinson, father of a 14-year-old boy who died from a brain injury during a rugby game.
Murrayfield has been active in support of this campaign for several years, notably even giving up a lucrative and prominent swathe of the Murrayfield advertising hoardings for the message.
One of Dr Stewart’s favourite adages is “prevention is the only cure”. There’s no doubt this is the main thrust of the new initiative.
Rugby’s law variations to try to reduce head injuries are still very much at the progression stage. Regular readers will know I don’t think that stiffer sanctions on high hits has actually stopped their regularity much.
Unless there’s a culture change about how the game’s played, we’ll always have too many blows to the head.
Hayman joins the class lawsuit
Wow, please look at the dates of when things were known 🤬🤬🤬🙏🏻❤️🏉🧠 https://t.co/z4vWeqVPgo
— Alix Popham (@AlixPopham) November 14, 2021
And bestriding the whole thing is the class lawsuit against World Rugby by former players with brain injuries. All Black legend Carl Hayman was the latest high-profile name to join the suit earlier this month. He revealed a diagnosis for early onset dementia at just 41.
The question of what the authorities knew – and more pertintently, when – about the risks of brain injury in the game will form the foundation of that case when it’s heard. But it was interesting to hear some sort of defence formulating from Roberts last week.
Quoted by my friend Robert Kitson in the Guardian, Roberts noted the group of players who have symptoms, but also “a huge cohort of rugby players who’ve had many head collisions who haven’t”.
“From an evidence-based medicine approach we’re in very dangerous territory if we’re saying: ‘It was definitely rugby that caused it,’” he said.
“Until the first cohort of professional players donate their brains (for study), there is no way of drawing a direct link.
“There needs to be more research funding to allow us to better understand it. I am definitely not in denial but we need to work far harder to prove it is rugby that causes this.”
12 risk factors
⚽️Looking for former professional players aged 40-59 to take part ⬇️https://t.co/4c4kdBqd58
— Brain Health Scotland (@brainhealthscot) November 10, 2021
In World Rugby’s video, Dr Stewart highlights 12 risk factors that contribute towards dementia. Brain injury is an “important” one. But the others – dietary factors like alcohol use and obesity, genetic factors, depression, hypertension (gulp) – are “significant”.
It’s definitely not the same as pinpointing old Uncle Archie’s lung cancer to the fact that he smoked 40 fags a day.
The majority of rugby players (of both codes – there’s an action against Rugby League as well now) didn’t get dementia. Not every footballer who repeatedly headed over decades a ball did either.
At least in rugby we now have a unified project for a safer game, with the backing of acknowledged experts.
But it still feels like we’re fumbling through a minefield in the dark.
Impressed by the Springboks, just not the way they play
Meanwhile in Edinburgh… 🍑 😂 🤣 pic.twitter.com/VpPhTqr2zA
— Rugbydump.com (@Rugbydump) November 13, 2021
As I think I’ve made clear in many Breakdowns recently, I am unequivocally not a fan of the South African national team and the way they play the game.
Nothing they do is illegal, of course. If Scotland were as successful playing this style as the Springboks, I’d possibly be more tolerant of it. But no, I endured Scotland when they didn’t have the ability to play anything else.
But for the non-Springbok fan or neutral it’s torturously dull to watch. If everybody played like this I would take early retirement.
But at the same time, you can’t help but be hugely impressed with the Boks as an entity. Specifically their captain Siya Kolisi.
After Saturday’s game, the outstanding photographer Craig Watson followed the skipper on his lap of honour around Murrayfield.
Craig saw Kolisi stop for every fan demanding a selfie. He signed everything, even the backside of a fan wearing nothing but Rainbow flag budgie smugglers.
You can’t imagine a more humble character, acutely feeling the privilege as the first Xhosa captain of South Africa. But at the same time he is conscious of his community and the severe inequalities of his country.
He showed it’s possible – in his case, probably necessary – to be simultaneously massively proud of your country but acknowledge its many faults.