Rugby union players’ legal action over head injuries to be heard in high court

Dozens of England and Wales rugby union internationals are among more than 200 players taking the game’s governing authorities to the high court next month over the devastating effects of repetitive head injuries amid what their lawyer described as “an existential crisis” for the sport.

The former England hooker Steve Thompson and Michael Lipman, who played for England from 2004 to 2008, are among 234 bringing a claim against the Rugby Football Union, World Rugby and the Welsh Rugby Union in a class action.

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The case began this summer, but a hearing on 1 December is likely to decide on which players should go forward as test cases after the players’ lawyers submitted 5,000 pages of medical records detailing brain injuries.

The claim involves 55 players including six women from England, 77 from Wales, eight from Scotland and five from Ireland. Further claims involving professional football and rugby league players are also at early stages in the high court in cases being handled by the same judge, the senior master of the King’s Bench division, Jeremy Cook.

Richard Boardman, the lawyer leading the case, said: “We believe there has been a systematic failure by the rugby governing bodies to protect players not just from concussions but also subconcussions. This is still a real and serious threat to the sport and unless immediate and substantial changes are introduced, current and future generations will end up with the same chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other neurological impairments.”

Boardman said subconcussions were smaller knocks to the head that could happen more than 60 times in a game for a flanker as they tackle, ruck and maul. These are not fouls but a core part of the sport, and many more occur in training.

In one report submitted in evidence reported on Sunday by the Sunday Times, a neurologist for Lipman, 42, said he “suffered at least five episodes of loss of consciousness during a game, which would be sufficient for a classification of mild traumatic brain injury to be made”.

Related: Three or more concussions add up to long-term cognitive problems, study suggests

Thompson, who won the World Cup with England in 2003 and was later diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable CTE , told the Guardian in 2020 that “I can’t remember being there at all.”

The rugby authorities are yet to submit their defences, but the RFU, World Rugby and the WRU said: “We remain saddened to hear the stories of former players who are struggling. Despite court orders to do so, the players’ lawyers have yet to provide full details of the claims being made against us and therefore we cannot comment on the ongoing legal action, nor reach out to the players directly.

“We would want players involved to know that we listen, we care and continue to champion player welfare as the sport’s number one priority.

“Players and parents can have confidence that rugby is as safe as a contact sport can be. Rugby will always be led by the latest science when taking any action on player welfare.”