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High Impact

Legal hearings in London are placing the spotlight on the risks of traumatic brain injury from playing rugby. Meanwhile, scientists in Aotearoa New Zealand are using new technology to seek answers about how much risk is too much.

By Bridget Van Der Zijpp

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Our nation has been built on the game of rugby. We basked for decades in the nostalgic glory of the Invincibles, the post World War I rugby team that went out and stunned the world with their prowess. That against-the-odds story from 1924 set up some epic ideals that have endured ever since — our small proud country producing a world-beating (well, sometimes) elite team in a gladiatorial show of might. Sure, it could be brutal sometimes, almost like a lower-stakes version of going off to a war every season, but on the footy field our heroes have been made, and up and down the country a pleasurable sense of collective identity has been derived from standing behind them, urging them on.
But another version of the story has emerged. Some of our former champions are coming out of the dark to declare they are now paying a huge cost, and it’s not about bung joints and ugly ears. It’s more hidden than that. It could be that what we’ve been watching when our team lined up on the field is some players potentially risking their future cognitive function.
In a recently published book, Head On, Carl Hayman, who played 46 games in the All Black jersey, discussed his probable diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative Alzheimer-like brain disorder caused by repeated head injuries (“probable” because an accurate diagnosis is only achievable post-mortem). He’s having memory trouble, and has been struggling to cope with alcoholism and a short temper. It takes a lot of courage when you were once able to think of yourself as a sporting hero to emerge out of confusion and shame (in his case arrests for assault and drunk driving) and start talking openly about how your brain has been so bashed around through sports it isn’t working too well anymore. His story is not singular, and as has happened elsewhere, his new heroism is to set the publicity ball rolling so others like him don’t feel so alone in their own personal struggle. Just 44, he was once the highest-paid player in the world. Known as a strongman, he was famed for taking the hard knocks and ploughing on — a time- honoured virtue in the professional game.
His friend, Alix Popham, a Welsh player with 33 international caps, encouraged the reluctant Hayman to travel to England for testing after his own diagnosis of probable CTE at the age of 40. Popham, who now can’t remember the games he played, has become a leading voice in the UK aiming to bring about awareness of the risks of head injury through his charity, Head for Change. The pair are both part of a lawsuit in the UK, along with 295 other former amateur and professional players who are suing World Rugby, the English Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, claiming players sustained brain damage through playing and the sporting bodies failed in their duty of care. Hayman is able to join the lawsuit because he played in the UK, but our ACC no-fault system currently prevents such legal action being brought by players in New Zealand.

The allegations in the legal case may challenge the future of the game, with outspoken neuropathologist and former World Rugby adviser Professor Willie Stewart telling the Associated Press in August: “I think this [2023] World Cup is the end of rugby as we know it. I think the current form of rugby union as it is played will change straight after the World Cup.”