Player health: Dementia case against rugby governing bodies destined for courts

David Skippers

A legal case brought against some of the game’s leading governing bodies from a group of former rugby players, who have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and other irreversible neurological disabilities, is now destined for the courts.

Rylands Law will issue proceedings on behalf of several professional and semi-professional players against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU).

High profile players involved

The applicants, who include former England 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson and ex-Wales skipper Ryan Jones, are arguing that rugby’s governing bodies’ were negligent by failing to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent injury caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows.

In December 2020, a pre-action letter of claim was issued to the same governing bodies on behalf of nine former players.

Since then, no agreement has been reached between the opposing parties and the matter appears to be heading to court. According to the PA news agency, the issuing of proceedings will take place on Monday. That means the court will take over the management of the cases and that puts the matter on a formal route to trial.

Rylands revealed that the current application for a group litigation order is the largest ‘class action’ lawsuit that has been launched outside the United States.

Overall, Rylands represents more than 185 rugby union players aged in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Jones, who was a member of the British and Irish Lions squad who toured New Zealand in 2005, revealed his diagnosis with early-onset dementia and probable Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in an Sunday Times interview earlier this month.

“I feel like my world is falling apart,” said the 41-year-old.

“I am really scared because I’ve got three children and three step-children and I want to be a fantastic dad.

“I lived 15 years of my life like a superhero and I’m not. I don’t know what the future holds.

“I am a product of an environment that is all about process and human performance. I’m not able to perform like I could, and I just want to lead a happy, healthy, normal life.

“I feel that’s been taken away and there’s nothing I can do.

“I can’t train harder, I can’t play the referee, I don’t know what the rules of the game are anymore.”

Rylands issued a statement in which they confirmed the imminent issuing of proceedings.

“This claim isn’t just about financial compensation; it is also about making the game safer and ensuring current and former players get tested so that if they are suffering a brain injury they can get the clinical help they need,” said the statement.

Challenging the governing bodies’ perceptions

“The players we represent love the game. We aim to challenge the current perceptions of the governing bodies, to reach a point where they accept the connection between repetitive blows to the head and permanent neurological injury and to take steps to protect players and support those who are injured.”

Rylands would not comment on whether former Gloucester second-row Ed Slater, who was recently diagnosed with motor neurone disease, is part of the group involved in the action.

Before the before the announcement was made public a World Rugby spokesperson was contacted and he said: “As of Sunday afternoon, World Rugby has not been issued with a legal claim.

“It would be inappropriate to comment until we have received the formal details of any action being taken.”

Sources indicated the WRU felt it “impossible” to comment as they have not seen the claim’s details.

READ MORE: Ryan Jones: Former Wales captain diagnosed with early-onset dementia