Rugby’s Health Crisis and the Rise of CTE

Rugby’s Health Crisis and the Rise of CTE

If you watched England’s narrow defeat to New Zealand in Dunedin last week, you may have found yourself wincing at the sheer power and brute force on display.

This was certainly evident in the scrummage and at the breakdown, while the thunderous tackling of Sam Underhill created some bone-shuddering collisions and demonstrated immense levels of physical commitment.

Such commitment is not without risk, however, particularly given the sport’s ongoing health crisis and the research connecting repeated concussions and head injuries with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But how strong is the correlation, and what could it mean for the future of the sport?

The Tragic Case of Billy Guyton

Last year saw former Tasman and M?ori All Black half-back Billy Guyton pass away at the tender age of 33, with his death ultimately being attributed to CTE.

The committed Guyton, who had been suffering from various neurological issues after suffering repeated concussions during his career, was the first professional rugby union player in New Zealand to be officially diagnosed with the condition.

In the years prior to his death, he had begun to develop anxiety, depression and increased mental confusion, while his remaining family donated his brain to the ‘Brain Bank’ to help assist ongoing research into the condition.

Discovering the Link Between Rugby and CTE

The studies into the links between CTE and rugby have intensified of late, culminating with the world’s first ever collaboration between the University of Glasgow, Boston University and the University of Sydney.

Led by Professor Willie Stewart at the University of Glasgow, this particular study highlighted that individuals who played rugby (at either an amateur or professional level) were at a significantly higher risk of developing CTE.

This supported previous findings, which revealed that former Scottish international rugby union players were two and a half times more likely to develop any neurodegenerative disease. At the same time, former England World Cup winners Steve Thompson and Mark Regan are currently part of legal action being taken against governing bodies World Rugby, England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU).

Thompson was diagnosed with early onset dementia in December 2020, and is one of several high profile rugby stars who have developed a neurological disorder after esteemed and extensive careers.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Rugby?

For now, the sport of rugby continues as usual, with various tournaments scheduled across the globe and all-year-round. The popular Rugby Championship will kick off in the southern hemisphere in August, for example, while Ireland won the coveted Six Nations title as recently as March.

While New Zealand are taking on England in a titanic Test series prior to hosting Argentina in the first round of the Rugby Championship, however, at least 40 former NZ stars and All Blacks are now considered to be suffering with CTE.

This creates an interesting juxtaposition, as while rugby may be more physical and popular than ever before, the sport continues to face an existential crisis that may change how it’s played in the future.

Managing this crisis may prove difficult. After all, intense physicality and powerful collisions are central to both Union and League codes, and removing these elements would arguably not be possible. However, Professor Willie Stewart and charities are calling on governing bodies to increase awareness and minimise risk.

For example, data has revealed that players with longer careers are at a heightened risk of developing CTE and similar conditions. In fact, the risk increases incrementally with every additional year of play. Campaigners have also asked teams to reduce instances of contact during training, which may prove incrementally beneficial over time.

Ultimately, there’s no doubt that rugby will have to evolve and adapt in the face of its looming health crisis. The real question is how should it change, especially as more players are officially diagnosed with neurological conditions such as CTE?

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