Rugby's Mike Edwards, 48, is 'struggling silently' with dementia

‘You’re used like an unwanted broken toy’: Rugby star Mike Edwards, 48, reveals he is ‘struggling silently’ as he opens up about early-onset dementia and says players are ‘treated like a piece of meat’

  • Michael Edwards, an ex-winger for Wales, said older athletes were just discarded
  • He claims they were ‘like a piece of meat’ with a ‘magic sponge’ for head injuries
  • But he added that there was ‘no arm around players’ shoulders when they finish’
  • It comes as a group of ex-rugby league players are to sue Rugby Football League
  • They are claiming there was a failure to protect them risks caused by head bangs

A former international rugby league player who was diagnosed with dementia aged just 48 has blasted the sport for a lack of aftercare.

Michael Edwards, who was a winger for Wales and Oldham, said older athletes were discarded ‘like an unwanted broken toy’.

He said stars were used ‘like a piece of meat’ with a ‘magic sponge’ used to treat concussions – but added there was ‘no arm around your shoulder when you finish’.

It comes as a group of former England, Wales and Scotland international rugby league players are to sue the Rugby Football League.

They are claiming there was a failure to protect them from the risks caused by head injuries, law firm Rylands Law said.

Head injuries have been in the spotlight since ex-rugby union players filed a class-action lawsuit against governing bodies over an alleged failure to minimise the risks.

Ex-Oldham, Swinton and Wales winger Mickii Edwards has slammed the game’s authorities

Mr Edwards is the latest to slam rugby bosses for not looking after players during their careers and after.

He told the Today programme: ‘There’s no aftercare forever for any rugby league player that played in the 90s, there’s no aftercare, no arm around your shoulder when you finish playing.

‘You’re basically used like an unwanted broken toy. It’s that bad. You’re treated like a piece of meat while you’re playing…

‘There’re hundreds of players – I’m talking for the players who are still struggling today who are walking around with their hands on their head struggling day to day.’

He added: ‘The way they got treated, they’re suffering silently, they have no voice.’

Mr Edwards said he knew he had not been right, revealing he had been getting headaches, becoming clumsy and suffering with his mental health.

He said he had been ‘struggling silently’ because he was not the type of person ‘to come out and talk to other people’.

Mr Edwards (pictured during his playing days) said stars were used ‘like a piece of meat’ with a ‘magic sponge’ used to treat concussions – but added there was ‘no arm around your shoulder when you finish’

Former rugby players who have been diagnosed with dementia:

  • Steve Thompson
  • Dan Scarbrough
  • Adam Hughes
  • Neil Spence
  • Alix Popham
  • Michael Lipman
  • Michael Edwards
  • Bobbie Goulding
  • Jason Roach
  • Paul Highton

On his dementia diagnosis, he told Today: ‘I’ve recently been diagnosed with dementia, I’m only 48.

‘I’ve still not digested it yet so I’m still wandering around like a lost soul and wondering what’s going to happen in the future.

‘It’s been happening for years and years and years. I’ve been really struggling with mental health.

‘I’ve been struggling silently to be honest. Not really telling people, I’ve noticed a few changes, headaches, bright lights, getting clumsy, I’ve never been clumsy.

‘It’s been really hard and I’m not one of them guys to come out and talk to other people, so that’s just the start.

‘Basically my short term memory is absolutely shocking, whenever anyone tells me anything I’ve instantly got to try to remember it by writing it down now which is not good.’

Mr Edwards admitted there were ‘numerous occasions’ of head injuries during the sport and that he was often knocked unconscious.

He continued: ‘Rugby league at that time was very physical, a lot more physical than it is now.

‘The referee used to let go quite a lot of high shots because that was part and parcel of the game. You give as good as what you got.

‘That was basically you’re a player and you played for the love of the game, you played with your heart on your shirt – we never got much money and you just wanted to do the best you could do to win the game.

Mr Edwards, who played high-level rugby from the age of seven, said it was easy to get knocked out cold in a match simply by mistiming a tackle and hitting a knee.

He said: ‘Sometimes you’ll be lucky and have a big cut to your head and other times you’ll be a big lump where you’re walking around concussed not knowing where you are.

‘It was called a magic sponge, a fella would run on the field and basically put a magic sponge on your head.

‘When playing for Oldham, it was freezing up there, the coldest bloody rugby stadium in the world, and they would come on with some smelling salts and a big sponge and basically that was it.

‘And you would gather your thoughts eventually and you would go back in line and do what you needed to do.’

Mr Edwards has joined former England scrum-half Bobbie Goulding and ex-Scotland fullback Jason Roach in a test group of 10 former rugby league players, all under the age of 60, bringing legal action against the governing bodies.


The 49-year-old made 366 appearance across 10 rugby league clubs during his time as a pro

They allege the RFL owed them ‘a duty to take reasonable care for their safety by establishing and implementing rules in respect of the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of actual or suspected concussive and sub-concussive injuries.’

In April, the RFL launched a pilot for a research project into quantifying the risk of head impact with the aim of increasing understanding and reducing future risk.

Its chief regulatory officer Karen Moorhouse said that the ‘wellbeing of players is a top priority of the RFL and clubs’.

Goulding, who spent most of his 17-year career playing in England’s Super League, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia this month.

‘For something like this to come out of the blue and hit me like a bus is hard to take,’ said the 49-year-old, who also had issues with alcohol and drug addiction.

‘I didn’t think about dementia at all, I just thought it was the way life was.’

The former players’ lawyer, Richard Boardman of Rylands Law, is also representing another 50 former rugby league players who are showing symptoms associated with neurological complications.

Boardman said the former players were taking legal action to make the sport safer.

‘The vast majority of the former players we represent love the game and don’t want to see it harmed in any way. They just want to make it safer so current and future generations don’t end up like them.’

The RFL has been approached for comment.

EXCLUSIVE: ‘I have never been scared of anything… but I’m scared now’: Rugby League legend Bobbie Goulding’s dementia diagnosis at just 49 has left him angry at the game’s failings on head injuries

  • Rugby League legend Bobbie Goulding opens up on his dementia diagnosis
  • Goulding admits he is scared after being diagnosed with early onset dementia
  • His diagnosis was a shock despite his increasing forgetfulness and mood swings
  • The 49-year-old’s condition comes as little surprise due to the rough treatment he received on the pitch – and the lack of treatment off it
  • Former pros Jason Roach, Ryan MacDonald and Mickii Edwards all speak out on the disease and lack of intervention from the League authories 

Just days after being given the devastating news that he has early onset dementia, Bobbie Goulding still has the capacity to surprise.

The 49-year-old’s dancing feet may have slowed from his days competing with Shaun Edwards to be the best half-back in Super League but he retains the quick wit that made him such a colourful personality off the pitch throughout an illustrious career. 

‘Going from penthouse to s***house is the simple way to say it,’ he says with a smile of his diagnosis.

Goulding will need his sense of humour over the months and years to come as he battles a debilitating brain condition for which there is little treatment, and attempts to come to terms with the implications for his family.

Rugby League legend Bobbie Goulding opens up to Sportsmail on his dementia diagnosis

Since struggling with a post-retirement drink and drugs addiction that climaxed with him puncturing a lung after crashing the family car into a tree eight years ago, the former Great Britain scrum-half has successfully turned his life around, building a personal training business from a gym he owns in St Helens.

Given this transformation, his dementia diagnosis seems particularly cruel. The 5ft 6in scrum-half made his first-team debut for Wigan at 16 and just two years later became the youngest-ever Great Britain tourist at 18, winning the first of 17 caps.

‘To get the diagnosis was devastating,’ says Goulding. ‘I’m a bit shook up. I’ve never been scared of anything in my life, but I’m scared now. I’ve got a lovely family to think about and my grandson now. He means more to me than anything and I absolutely idolise him. And if this does go quickly I might not get much time with him.

‘I hope everything’s going to be OK. In some ways it’s worse knowing as it’s always at the back of your mind. If you don’t know about it, you can get on with your life.’

Some of the other players taking legal action against the Rugby Football League for negligence in their treatment of head injuries have struggled with dementia symptoms for years. Goulding’s diagnosis was a shock despite his increasing forgetfulness and mood swings.

His condition comes as little surprise due to the rough treatment he received on the pitch, and the lack of treatment off it

‘It has come out of the blue and hit me like a bus, it is hard to take,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think about dementia at all, I just thought it was the way life was.

‘You’d be better off speaking to my wife and daughter about what I’m like, but things aren’t right.

‘I’m argumentative. I forget things. Last week I even forgot I was on a Zoom call with the neurologist. I’d signed into it OK, but the next thing my phone was ringing red hot.

‘I didn’t answer it as I didn’t recognise the number, and then my daughter came in to tell me what I was supposed to be doing. I finally answered the call and it was the doctor I’d logged on my computer to speak to 10 minutes earlier.’

With the benefit of hindsight, however, his condition comes as little surprise due to the rough treatment he received on the pitch, and the lack of treatment off it.

Given his diminutive stature there is an obvious comparison to be made with Rob Burrow, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of just 37. Both were relative pygmies in a game played by giants.

Goulding has drew comparisons to ex-Leeds Rhino star Rob Burrow (pictured), who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of just 37

‘I was 13 stone, 5ft 6in, playing against blokes who were 6ft 2in and 19 stone, and didn’t even bother about it,’ Goulding says. ‘But it takes its toll in the end. Especially if they’re angry!

‘I was knocked out cold six times. I’ve torn my biceps off my arm. I broke my leg. I’ve had numerous groin operations. I’ve split my head open. I’ve knocked my teeth out. I had my ankle fused last March. 

‘I accepted everything like that when I played, as I didn’t know any better at the time. What needs to change is the aftercare following the incidents. When you’re knocked out you shouldn’t be playing. We were neglected. I hope things have changed and the players are treated better.’

Some of the incidents Goulding recalls from his career, and the circumstances in which he was forced to play, defy belief. ‘I played within days of serious knockouts on at least three occasions,’ he says. 

‘I remember playing on a Sunday for Leigh at Huddersfield towards the end of my career in 2002. I was in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary on the Sunday night after being seriously knocked out, and played the following Saturday against Batley.

‘I didn’t have one doctor check on me during that week. ‘Bob, are you ready to play?’ they said. ‘Yeah, I’ll play’. If you watched the video you’d be shocked.

‘There was another game that stands out just after I’d signed for Widnes in 1992. We were playing at Hull KR and I was knocked out.

‘We were still living in Leeds at the time so I didn’t get the team bus home. My wife drove and she had to pull over on the motorway as all my bodily functions just went right through me. She had to pull over, and there was s**t and p**s everywhere. It was horrendous. I had no control at all.’

The only recognition of the dangers of concussion Goulding received during a playing career that began at Wigan in 1990 and finished with a player-coaching stint at Rochdale 15 years later was a pre-season baseline cognitive assessment which, he claims, was completely unsupervised, thus allowing the players to cheat and making a mockery of the entire process.

‘We had the test to do on the computer at the start of the season to set our template for the year, which you’d come back to if you had a head injury, but players cheated all the time,’ he says.

‘You had to come back and do it if you were injured and beat your previous time.

‘But we’d give each other our passwords and do it for each other all the time. There was no one overseeing the process so you’d have people doing it for their mate who was injured.

‘It’s not good enough for a so-called professional sport.’

Other than the legal case, Goulding’s priority is planning a future for his family: wife Paula, four children and three-year-old grandson Ralphy.

Goulding’s priority is planning a future for his family: wife Paula, four children and grandson

‘My wife is still in shock,’ he says. ‘Paula’s a teacher and when she came home from work last Friday after the diagnosis she gave me a little kiss. 

‘I usually have to wait until later in the evening for those! We’ve been together 31 years, married 29, and held hands when we went shopping last weekend. We felt very close.

‘I had to call my son in Australia to tell him. He’s set up a new life for himself and it wasn’t nice to make that call.

‘I’m trying to be as positive as I possibly can. I’m a determined bloke and whatever comes up I’m going to push on through. 

‘When you get to 49 you’ve lived a pretty miserable life if you’ve not had a few problems to get over. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.’

The authorities have got away with murder for years

MICKII EDWARDS

Age: 47 — former Oldham, Swinton and Wales winger

My symptoms came out of the blue two years ago – it was like being hit by a bus. Three years ago I did a 125-mile run and the year before I did the Marathon des Sables, six marathons in six days in the Sahara desert, but all of a sudden I went to pieces.

I started being clumsy, dropping things all the time. I got headaches, a wave of tiredness over my face. I couldn’t stand bright lights, even my wife turning the light on in the morning would irritate me. Loud noises were painful.

I just took it on the chin and thought it was because I was getting old, but we had some tests done and discovered I’ve got early dementia. There will be a lot of guys with this condition who don’t even know it. 

They’re big strong guys with a very high tolerance for pain and suffering, so they will just be getting on with it. They’ll be walking around in La La Land, doing tough jobs on construction sites, when they need help.

The authorities have got away with murder for years. When I played you’d have a bang on the head, be bleeding, but just play on. The doctor would stick Vaseline on the wound and say carry on. Often after games I’d feel sick and nauseous. There were no protocols or aftercare. You were basically treated like a piece of meat.

There’s no help or support out there. There are a lot of suicides among former rugby players. Two of my mates from one team killed themselves for no apparent reason. They were obviously depressed with hindsight, but no one knew they were.

We need to put a structure in place to get help to people who need it.

Sometimes I wonder what the point is… it’s frightening

RYAN MacDONALD

Age: 43 — former Halifax, Workington and Scotland prop

The worst thing for me is the anger issues. I can be really nasty and aggressive with people for no reason. 

If someone looks at me in what I consider the wrong way I’ll bite their head off, or want to get hold of them. It’s absolutely awful. I feel like my head is in a dark cloud all the time.

I try not to get upset, but I know it’s only going to get worse. When I talk to the other lads and hear what I’ve got to look forward to, sometimes I wonder, what’s the point? 

It’s very frightening as I’ve got a young family and need to support them. It’s only thinking about my kids and my family that keeps me going.

Former Scotland prop Ryan MacDonald’s diagnosis has left him feeling angry and frightened

One of the hardest things has been asking for help. From a young age you’re taught not to show any weakness, especially in our game, but now I’m trying to bare my soul to complete strangers. 

The NHS just throw tablets at you, which can lift the fog, but they don’t deal with the problem. They just mask it.

Never mind head injuries, there’s no aftercare in rugby, full stop. As soon as you’re retired you don’t exist. You’re left in the dark. 

You lose 70 or 80 per cent of your friends, who may still be playing, and the thing you’ve done all your life you can no longer do. All of a sudden you’re just dropped like a stone. Clubs don’t bother getting in touch with you as you’re no use to them anymore. It’s an absolute joke.

Memory loss has turned me into a nervous recluse

JASON ROACH

Age: 50 — former St Helens, Warrington and Scotland winger

I started forgetting things about 10 or 12 years ago before I was 40, even major events.

One time I got into trouble with the police. I was arrested seven days after an incident in my car, but when the police knocked on my door I had no recollection of it happening. They told me that I’d gone into the back of a car, threatened the other driver, and then driven off. The policeman said to me, ‘You’re either the best liar in the world, or you didn’t do it!’ I pleaded guilty, but to this day I can’t remember a thing.

I forget where I’ve parked my car and have to check I’ve locked the doors a hundred times to make sure. Sometimes I’ll be making coffee and realise I’ve put two spoons in the cup. Why would I do that? These aren’t major things, but they make me feel anxious about the future. I’ve got a 10-month-old daughter and need to look after her.

Former St Helens winger Jason Roach says his memory loss has seen him ‘retreat into my shell’

I used to be the life and soul, but because of the forgetfulness I’ve retreated into my shell. I was a nervous wreck coming on the train today because I don’t do public transport anymore. I’ve become quite reclusive. I just go to work, come home, have the odd drink in my garden.

Bizarrely, I can still remember my first concussion. I was playing for St Helens against Bradford at Christmas. I took the ball up from the kick-off, was cleaned out, then just sat down on my backside. I played on until half-time. I wasn’t out cold, but the lads said I was singing Christmas carols on the bench in the second half.

I was taken to hospital, where I rang my partner of two years, and she said we’d split up a few weeks earlier. I had no idea. I was in tears in the hospital in my Saints kit.

Rugby is more dangerous since going pro in 1995 and players are terrified of the effect huge tackles are having on the brain, study suggests, as scientists urge for immediate change in the rules

  • Stars playing since 1995 were more likely to suffer lasting trauma to their heads
  • A survey also found 62 per cent of those involved in the game fear huge tackles
  • This rises further to 73 per cent for parents who don’t play but whose child does
  • As many as 61 per cent said rugby was more dangerous at all levels since 1995

Rugby has turned more dangerous since the sport went pro and has left the majority of players terrified about the long-term effects on their brain, a study suggests.

Stars playing since 1995 – when being paid to play began – appear more likely to suffer lasting trauma to their heads than those who retired before this date.

A survey linked to the research found a staggering 62 per cent of those involved in the game fear huge tackles could be damaging their brains.

This rose even further to 73 per cent for parents who do not play but whose child is getting into the sport.

Meanwhile as much as 61 per cent of those asked said they felt rugby had become more dangerous at all levels since the game turned professional.

The concerning findings have reignited calls for an urgent review into the laws of rugby union to make it safer across all disciplines.

Former England captain Lewis Moody welcomed the study and said it was ‘essential’ those going into rugby understood the health ramifications first.

It comes amid a wider focus on the effect of devastating head injuries in sport, with a renewed focus on footballers heading the ball in recent months.

English football announced in July restrictions on heading among adults, which means professional players are limited to 10 ‘higher-force’ headers per training week.

Stars playing since 1995 – when being paid to play began – are more likely to suffer lasting trauma to their heads than those who retired before this date, a study suggests. Pictured: Former English rugby union fullback Jonathan Webb taking part in the study

The Drake Foundation and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine worked with 146 former elite rugby players who were mostly from before 1995 when the sport turned pro and either competed for England, Oxford University or Cambridge University. Pictured: Former English rugby union fullback Jonathan Webb taking part in the study

The BRAIN study found stars who had three concussions did not have a significant impact on cognitive function before turning 75 than those who had fewer than three. Pictured: Former English rugby union fullback Jonathan Webb taking part in the study

The Drake Foundation and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine worked with 146 former elite rugby players who were mostly from before 1995 when the sport turned pro and either competed for England, Oxford University or Cambridge University.

The BRAIN study found stars who had three concussions did not have a significant impact on cognitive function before turning 75 than those who had fewer than three.

It did not see an overall group association between concussion history and worse cognitive function.

But tests found 29 per cent of over 75s who had suffered three or more rugby-related concussions during their career had significantly worse cognitive function.

The Drake Rugby Biomarker Study found earlier this year over a fifth – 23 per cent – of post professional era athletes have abnormalities in brain structure and half had a change in brain volume.

They said it raises urgent questions about the direction of safety in rugby since 1995 and called for immediate changes to the laws of the game.

A number of recent ex-stars have suffered early brain problems, including Steve Thompson who has early onset dementia aged just 43.

There has also been a rise in former athletes suffering other brain defects such as probable CTE, which has also been linked to American Football players.

Meanwhile a separate survey by the Drake Foundation of 508 people this month found 62 per cent of people involved in rugby union are concerned about its long-term effects on brain health.

But this skyrocketed to 73 per cent for adults who do not play the game but whose child does.

Nearly two-thirds – 61 per cent – said they thought rugby had become more dangerous at all levels since it turned professional.

And 66 per cent said they felt that a fundamental change in the laws are needed to make the sport safer.

Concussions in rugby:

As a contact sport, rugby involves frequent body impacts and a risk of accidental head impacts, and therefore a significant potential risk of concussion. 

According to the data collected through the RFU’s Community Injury Surveillance & Prevention Programme (CRISP) in age grade rugby (age 15 – 18) the most recent rate shown equates to 1 concussion per team every 10 games and 1 concussion per team every 25 games in adult male rugby. 

In professional rugby it is 1 every 2-3 team games.

The rise in the rates seen since 2012/13 are almost certainly due to the increased awareness and the much lower threshold for suspecting concussion, and reflect the success of the awareness and education programmes, and media coverage.

Source: England Rugby

The Drake Foundation, which published its results in The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association today, is urging for a review into the rules of the game to protect participants.

Its study worked with 146 ex-elite rugby players in England aged 50 years and over – with most having played in the pre-professional era – to examine brain health trends.

Participants took extensive tests capturing physical and cognitive capabilities as well as questions about their playing and concussion history.

Researchers said decreases in cognitive function may have come at such an older age due to the players generally being highly educated with a higher than average cognitive function at the start of their careers.

But the Drake Foundation said the results still call into question whether safety standards in the sport have worsened since the game turned professional.

The scientists said further research was needed to get data on long-term brain health in players from both the professional and amateur eras.

Former England international and Drake Foundation Ambassador Lewis Moody MBE, said: ‘This study funded by The Drake Foundation takes us another step further in our understanding of the links between rugby and later life brain health, and continues to widen the conversation in this area.

‘It’s essential that everyone participating at all levels of the game is included and educated on the topic of rugby player welfare.

‘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 BRAIN study did not see an overall group association between concussion history and worse cognitive function

A list of the research tools used by the study to check the former elite rugby players for the tests

The average height and weight of rugby players as the sport moved from the amateur to professional era

The volume of impact has also ballooned, with the number of tackles per game more than doubling in the last three decades 

James Drake, founder of The Drake Foundation, said: ‘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 per cent 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.’

Lauren Pulling, CEO of The Drake Foundation, said: ‘The BRAIN study, which we funded, yielded some interesting results and new insights into the long-term effects of rugby as it was played in the pre-professional era.

‘These findings are broadly reassuring for players from the amateur era. However, given the findings of the Drake Rugby Biomarker Study and recent cases of early-onset brain disease in ex-players from the professional era, the new study results do call into question how long-term health might differ in players from the modern era.

‘The evidence we have so far suggests that the sport may actually be travelling in the wrong direction in terms of player welfare and brain health.

‘In addition to further research, we therefore also urge the sport’s governing bodies to review the modern game’s laws and protocols and take urgent, preventative action to universally reduce players’ exposure to head impacts both in matches and training.’

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘Collisions in sport is an area of increasing scrutiny for public health, however relatively little is known about the long-term impact of concussions received in rugby union.

‘Findings from this study of ex-amateur elite level rugby union players adds to our understanding of the risks involved with professional sports.

‘While we know exercise is good for our brain health, certain sports involving high energy collisions have been linked to risk of long-term neurological problems.

‘There hasn’t been enough long-term research involving ex-rugby players for us to know what specific risks might be associated with a rugby career.

‘Further research in a larger number of volunteers is required to establish if any link between concussions sustained on the rugby field and memory problems in later life exists.

‘While the game of rugby has evolved over a number of years, so has the approach to managing concussions, and creating a safer game should continue to be an important for public health goal for all.’

Dr Neil Graham, Alzheimer’s Research UK Clinical Research Fellow based at the UK Dementia Research Institute’s Care Research and Technology Centre at Imperial College London, said:

‘This is an important paper which looks at the effects of concussion in former elite male rugby players now in their late 60s/70s.

‘The researchers found association of head injuries and later life cognitive problems in older players.

‘This raises the question of an interplay of head injury, ageing and long-term brain health, although the study did not address this specifically.

‘It remains important to clarify what type, or total amount of head injury poses the greatest risk of memory problems in later life, and whether these cognitive difficulties are static or progressive such as in dementia.

‘Recent advances in biomarkers, which enable ultrasensitive diagnosis of brain injury and characterisation of its consequences, are likely to accelerate the longitudinal studies which are key to answering these important public health questions.’


LOCKS: Left is former England captain Bill Beaumont (6ft 3in) in 1980, and right is current player Joe Launchbury (19st 12lbs and is 6ft 5in) playing last month


CENTRES: Left is England centre Clive Woodward (12st 8lb and 5ft 11in) in 1982 and right is Manu Tuilagi (17st 4lb and 6ft 1in) in a recent game


FLANKER: Left is England’s Nick Jeavons (16st 1lb and 6ft 3in) in action against Scotland in 1982, and right is current player Sam Underhill (16st 10lb and 6ft 1in) earlier this year


PROP: Left is Fran Cotton (16st 7lb and 6ft 2in) playing for the Lions in 1980 and right is England’s Kyle Sinclair (18st 13lb and 5ft 10in) in 2019

‘I can’t remember any of the games whatsoever’: Steve Thompson revealed the extent of the damage done to his brain

Steve Thompson, 42, who retired in 2011, revealed last year his memory of winning the World Cup had vanished.

He said: ‘I have no recollection of winning the World Cup in 2003 or of being in Australia for the tournament’

‘I can’t remember any of the games whatsoever or anything that happens in those games. 

‘It’s like I’m watching the game with England playing and I can see me there, but I wasn’t there, because it’s not me.

‘You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it.’ 

Over the last four decades the average rugby player has swelled from 14st and 5ft 11ins to 16st 3lbs and 6ft 1in.

Scotland’s Richie Gray is 6ft 8in while Bill Cavubati – who used to play for Fiji – was 26st.

Advances in sport science and investment in strength and conditioning saw players swap the pub for the gym and pile on muscle.

Asked what it would be like to be hit by one of the new-era players, Professor Bill Ribbans flatly replied: ‘It’s like being hit by a truck.’

That such alarming accounts from ex-players are only coming to the fore now – when the sport was founded in the early 19th Century – has been traced to the pro age.

Professionalism largely flushed the post-match drinking culture and put emphasis on nutrition and athleticism.

A 2012 analysis found players in the 1980s weighed an average 14st and stood at 5ft 11ins.

By contrast in 2020 the average English Premiership player weighed 16st 3lbs and was 6ft 1in.

The gulf in size between the generations is most striking in some positions in particular.

Once slight and nimble wingers were replaced by powerhouses built in the image of the late All Black icon Jonah Lomu – whose devastating combination of size, strength and speed set the bar for the next generation of players.

Stars of the amateur age included the likes of legendary Welsh winger JJ Williams, whose slight build of 12st and 5ft 9ins allowed him to carve through the opposition’s defences.

The difference is striking compared with George North, the current Welshman to wear the Number 11 jersey, who stands at 17st and is 6ft 4ins, allowing him to bulldoze through players.

Professor Ribbans said tackling one of the bigger stars could put as much as a fifth of a tonne of force on one shoulder.

The volume of impact has also ballooned, with the number of tackles per game more than doubling in the last three decades.

Demands for action reached a crescendo when Steve Thompson (pictured) went public with his early dementia diagnosis and said he had no memory of winning the 2003 World Cup due to brain damage

In 1987 there was an average 94 tackles per game compared to 257 in 2019, according to official World Rugby statistics.

Richard Boardman, the lawyer bringing Thompson’s case to World Rugby, echoed the concerns over rugby’s physicality.

He said: ‘Every guy involved in this action loves the game, and they love the physicality of it.

‘The caveat to that is, since 1995 when the game went professional, the size of the guys has increased, the power, the strength, the pace of the game and therefore the collisions have increased.

Strong link between heading and brain disease, dementia expert finds

Neuropathologist, Dr Willie Stewart, found former players are 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases than the general public.

Dr Stewart is one of the leading experts on the link between football and dementia having studied the medical records of 7,676 men who played professionally between 1900 and 1976.

In addition, the scientist also conducted tests on the brain tissue of the celebrated West Bromwich Albion centre forward, Jeff Astle, in 2014, concluding the striker suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition traditionally associated with boxers.

The University of Glasgow academic told the MPs earlier this year that while it will be difficult to demonstrate a direct causal link between heading a football and suffering dementia forty years later, he said, ‘on a balance of probabilities, I think we are there’.

MPs on the Digital, Culture Media and Sport select committee has been investigating the link between sport and brain disease.

It has heard from experts and campaigners, including Dawn Astle, the daughter of West Bromwich Albion forward, Jeff.

Jeff Astle died Astle aged 59 in 2002 from a degenerative brain disease due to heading the ball and Dawn has been an indefatigable campaigner.

His daughter told MPs she had taken up the campaign over football and dementia after her father had been badly let down.

‘Football doesn’t want to think that football can be a killer. But I know it can be, because it’s on my dad’s death certificate,’ she said.

‘I want to make sure players affected are looked after properly,’ she added. ‘And I want to make sure the game is safe for players now and in the future. 

‘I certainly think potentially there are things within a game that could change. If you think of the 2019 World Cup final when the ‘bomb squad’ – six 18-stone South Africans – came off the bench in the second half, that just means that the days of the 15-stone Jeff Probyn have gone.’

Professor Ribbans added the laws have evolved in a way that encourages players to tackle higher, leading to more serious injuries.

He said ‘rugby always had the potential to be a dangerous game’ but hoped that recent players would not suffer the same damage of the likes of Thompson because of improved treatment.

But the surgeon, whose book Knife In The Fast Lane chronicles his career in sports medicine, said ‘a lot more needs to be done’.

He joined calls for clubs to reduce the amount of contact training during the week to allow players’ bodies to recover, and also suggested a review of the substitute rules to stop fresh players coming on and smashing tired opponents.

Mr Boardman warned of an ‘epidemic’ in brain disease among retired professionals without serious reform of the game.

He said: ‘We believe up to 50 per cent of former professional rugby players could end up with neurological complications in retirement.

‘That’s an epidemic, and whether you believe the governing bodies and World Rugby are liable or not, something has to be done to improve the game going forward.’

Thompson, 43, who retired in 2011, revealed that his memory of winning the World Cup had vanished.

He said: ‘I have no recollection of winning the World Cup in 2003 or of being in Australia for the tournament’

‘I can’t remember any of the games whatsoever or anything that happens in those games. 

‘It’s like I’m watching the game with England playing and I can see me there, but I wasn’t there, because it’s not me.

‘You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it.’

Football is also seeing a renewed focus on protecting players heads, with heading during training being curbed.

English football announced in the summer restrictions on heading among adults, with professional players limited to 10 ‘higher-force’ headers per training week.

The guidance follows research which has established ex-stars are more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases than the general public.

Initial studies found most heading takes place in training and on many occasions the forces involved are low.

But where the ball is crossed for forwards or defenders to attack, or if an aerial pass is made over more than 35 metres, the forces are higher and these headers will now be limited.

Guidelines applied from the Premier League to grassroots from the start of the 2021-22 season.

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