Following a landmark study that indicated the risk of motor neurone disease among Scottish international players was 15 times higher than the general population, rugby union has been advised to reduce competitive matches and eliminate contact training sessions entirely throughout the season.
The study compared 412 former Scotland internationals born between 1900 and 1990 to over 1,200 non-players of the same age, area, and socioeconomic status.
It also discovered that rugby players – all male – were twice as likely to develop dementia and more than three times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease.
Dr. Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow who led the study, said the MND figure was concerning and warned that the issue of brain damage in rugby could be even worse in 20 years’ time.
“I think that we’re seeing these observations from largely an amateur era,” he said. “The way the game has changed professionally, with much more training and game exposure, has meant head injury rates and head impact rates have gone up.
“I am genuinely really concerned about what’s happening in the modern game. In 20 years time, if we repeat the study, we may see something which is even more concerning.”
While the aggregate number of former Scotland internationals estimated to have MND is still tiny, Stewart stated that the findings were “statistically significant.”
It also follows a number of high-profile incidents of rugby players being diagnosed with the degenerative ailment, the most recent being Gloucester lock Ed Slater, who announced his retirement this year at the age of 34.
Other high-profile rugby players who have suffered MND, which affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord, include former Scotland international Doddie Weir and late South African scrum half Joost van der Westhuizen.
Stewart stated that while rugby had discussed brain injury care extensively, progress had been “very glacial.” He stated:
“I think this stimulus to them is to really pick up their heels and start making pretty dramatic changes as quickly as possible to try and reduce risk.
“Instead of talking about extending seasons and introducing new competitions and global seasons, they should maybe talk about restricting it as much as possible.
“Contact training during the week, during the competition season, should be pretty much a thing of the past. At the same time look at the number of matches that are being played – is it credible that young men and young women are playing week‑in, week-out for the majority of the year just for entertainment and is there a way we can trim back on that? Things like that have to be addressed pretty rapidly.”
A comparable study released three years earlier by the same researchers discovered that former professional footballers were three and a half times more likely than the general population to die of dementia – slightly higher than rugby.
Stewart, on the other hand, stated that he was not persuaded there was a significant difference between the two sports and that more research was likely to demonstrate it.