Rugby has many existential issues in the modern era, however none is currently more concerning than the effects of brain injuries on the future health of players.
A recent study from the University of Glasgow revealed that professional rugby players are 15 times more likely to develop Motor Neurone Disease than a member of the non-rugby playing public.
The study compared health outcomes among 412 male, Scottish, former international rugby players with over 1,200 matched individuals from the general population.
The results, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, showed that while age at death was slightly higher among former players, they were also at higher risk of a neurodegenerative disease diagnosis compared to their matched controls.
The risk varies by sub-type, but not by player position. As well as the higher risk of developing motor neurone disease, the risk of Parkinson’s disease is three times greater.
This is the latest in a long line of studies linking brain injuries in rugby to long-term brain issues like Motor Neurone Disease and early-onset dementia.
The future of the game is at risk if these issues cannot be overcome, and former Ireland captain Keith Wood is concerned that if rugby authorities do not act soon, it might be too late for many.
'The headline number is terrifying!'
Speaking on Wednesday Night Rugby, Wood reacted to the study. While much of the findings of the study are concerning for him as a former international player, what is more concerning is that the study called for greater research immediately.
"It is a reasonable-sized study," Wood said. "It isn't a tiny study. The line that comes out that there needs to be more study on it straight away is something that sticks out an awful lot.
"The headline number is terrifying! The idea of this being not taken fully seriously would be truly terrible for the sport.
"Whatever has to be done to gather more information for that has to be done has to be done, and it has to be done very, very quickly."
One of the most influential former internationals currently suffering the effects of Motor Neurone Disease is Doddie Weir. Weir played 61 tests for Scotland before retiring in 2005. In 2017, he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.
Since then, he has been a major fundraiser for research into the condition. Wood looked at all that Weir has done for the game and for awareness of Motor Neurone Disease.
"By coincidence I was with Doddie Weir for the weekend in Scotland," Wood said. "He truly is a force of nature, but it is incredibly debilitating.
"What he has managed to do in terms of highlighting the issues are pretty stark. He has managed to fundraise a colossal amount of money with it.
"His drive and his mental fortitude is still absolutely there. It is tough. It is very, very tough. The more studies that come out from this, I'm going to say, the better.
"We need to get to the root cause of them. It is such a debilitating disease, we don't want to have any more of this."
Fewer games for the benefit of the game
For Wood, one clear and obvious way to reduce the risk of the collisions that are related to Motor Neurone Disease is to reduce the number of matches, or the overall length of the rugby season.
"It makes it an incredibly awkward conversation, a very difficult conversation," Wood said. "I was trying to say that there's a constant push to make the game bigger, as in more matches, more leagues and going to different places.
"Rugby is a big sport, but it is nothing like football. For me, the game is just extended too far in the year. There isn't a definable off-season really.
"There's tours in all the off-seasons, and you end up with six weeks. The amount of recovery level is not quite there. It isn't as defined as you'd like it to be.
"It never really had a coordinated approach towards what professional rugby would be once the game went open in '96. If it had been all tied into the unions, it might have been looked at very differently.
"Different people own different rights, and because of that they have put a lot of money in towards it. They are looking at it from that perspective.
While many rugby players might suggest that playing fewer games is a negative, Wood feels that it would the best thing for the players and the game as a whole.
"For me, for the enjoyment of playing, that idea of wanting to play every week, of course we wanted to play every week," Wood said. "You do want to have an end of a season.
"So, if there's any way of tidying it up, it may come down to the idea that health and safety grounds may be the forcing mechanism for a restructuring of the game."
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