Research suggests rugby was safer in pre-professional era

26 Oct 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

The Drake Foundation is urging rugby authorities and governing bodies to consider immediate law changes to the sport at all levels following the publication of research that suggests the game may have been safer in the pre-professional era.

The BRAIN study, funded by The Drake Foundation, found that former elite rugby players who experienced three or more concussions during their career did not have worse cognitive function before the age of 75 than those who had experience no, or just one or two, concussions.

The study found no overall group association between concussion history and worse cognitive function but did find that 29% of over 75s who had suffered three or more rugby-related concussions during their career had significantly worse cognitive function.

The BRAIN study worked with 146 former elite rugby players in England aged 50 years and over, most of whom played in the pre-professional era, to examine brain health trends. The study saw the participants take part in an extensive set of tests capturing physical and cognitive capabilities, as well as questions about their playing and concussion history.

The results from the BRAIN study call into question whether safety standards in the sport have worsened since the game became professional.  Several retired players from the modern era have recently been diagnosed with early-onset neurodegenerative disease and likely CTE.

In addition, the neuroimaging results of the Drake Rugby Biomarker Study, published earlier this year, found that 23% of current elite adult rugby players tested had abnormalities in brain structure, and half showed an unexpected change in brain volume.

A similar proportion of those surveyed, 61%, agree that rugby has become a more dangerous sport at all levels since it turned professional in 1995, whilst 66% believe that rugby union would be safer if fundamental law changes were introduced to better reflect the way the sport was played in the pre-professional era.

James Drake, founder of The Drake Foundation, commented: “As a passionate sports fan who loves rugby, I’ve witnessed first-hand the way the game has evolved since turning professional. In my view it’s a sport that has become ostensibly less safe for the players involved and my concerns are reflected by our research this month, which reveals 61% of adults who either play the game or have children that do, are concerned about the sport’s long-term effect on brain health.

“A further two thirds of adults believe the sport could be made safer if law changes were introduced to return it to the game as it was played in the amateur era. The Drake Foundation is calling on rugby’s authorities to give this immediate consideration to protect the sport we love and the current and future generations who play it.”

Former England international and Drake Foundation Ambassador Lewis Moody MBE, added:  “The fact that two thirds of those involved in the amateur game are concerned about rugby’s effect on long-term brain health shows there is a big issue here that needs to be urgently addressed across both the grassroots and elite levels. As well as widening the conversation, I would like to see enforceable guidelines across all levels of rugby to limit players’ exposure to head impacts in order to protect players and the game that we love.”

The Drake Foundation review comes just a month after World Rugby published new contact training guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of injury and supporting player welfare.

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