Former players launch legal claim against rugby authorities over head injuries

·3-min read

A former professional rugby player is pursuing legal action against the sport's governing bodies after sustaining a brain injury, that he claims, forced him to retire at 28-years-old.

Adam Hughes, 30, a former Wales Under-20 centre, fears he might develop early onset dementia and is one of nine former players seeking legal action against World Rugby, England Rugby (RFU) and Wales Rugby Union (WRU).

A pre-action legal letter has been sent to them claiming they failed in their "ongoing duty to safeguard and promote the development of the sport having regard to the safety and best interests of the players".

Hughes joins Steve Thompson, the 42-year-old who won the World Cup with England in 2003 but can't remember a single minute of the tournament, former Wales international Alix Popham and others in the legal action.

Richard Boardman, the lawyer leading the lawsuit, says there are up to 70 former professional rugby players waiting in the wings who could also have a claim.

It represents an existential crisis for rugby union with former players and doctors calling for tackling to be banned in children's rugby and training to be limited at elite level.

"I had about eight complete knockouts in my career, the worst one was during a pre-season game in 2016 where it took me six months to recover," said Hughes.

"With the other concussions, there are large parts of the days they happened that I have lost forever. For example, after one knock-out my only memory is sitting in the stand, it was freezing cold and I had a big coat on.

"I had no idea how I got there or any recollection of the day up until that point. It was the coaches who told me what happened."

While Hughes has not been diagnosed with early onset dementia, medical professionals have warned that he is on the same track as other former players with traumatic brain injury.

"Of course, I know people will say that I knew what the risks were," he said. "Yes, I did, but that misses the point completely.

"If there were opportunities to make the game safer, and I believe there were, then it was incumbent on those with power to do so. The game still has a very long way to go in terms of education about concussion."

Neil Spence, 44, played as a back for Leicester, Gloucester and Rotherham Titans.

He is also making a legal claim having lived with sub-concussive symptoms for eight years.

"I was suffering terribly with mood swings, anxiety attacks, depression and anger issues," he said.

"I felt like my head was going to explode. I would feel angry and frustrated at even the smallest obstacles.

"I used to joke that I must have dementia, as it's been a long-time occurrence for me to get in the car for a journey I do on a regular basis, such as going to the supermarket, travelling to work and dropping the kids off at sports activities, only to reach a roundabout and have no idea what turning to take.

"It's made me a very hesitant driver as I am not always sure which way I am heading. And I have been getting more and more confused of late."

The governing bodies have a maximum of three months from the date of acknowledgement of the letter of claim to provide their initial responses.

In a joint statement they said: "World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union can confirm they have received a letter of claim from solicitors representing certain players and will now take time to consider its contents.

"We have been deeply saddened to hear the brave personal accounts from former players.

"Rugby is a contact sport and while there is an element of risk to playing any sport, rugby takes player welfare extremely seriously and it continues to be our number one priority.

"As a result of scientific knowledge improving, rugby has developed its approach to concussion surveillance, education, management and prevention across the whole game."