Rugby warned by brain specialist to cut midweek training

Rugby warned by brain specialist to follow NFL by cutting midweek contact training while also increasing age of tackling at youth level in bid to limit the dangers of concussion

  • Chris Nowinski has urged rugby to limit contact training to help protect players
  • Concussion campaigner states age for tackling at youth level should be raised 
  • Since 2011 the NFL has allowed only one contact training session per week
  • Calls come after World Cup winner Steve Thompson revealed he has dementia 

An American concussion campaigner and neuroscientist says rugby must follow the NFL by cutting midweek contact training to minimise head-injury risk.

Tackling at youth level should be introduced later to reduce the danger of concussion.

That is the opinion of Chris Nowinski, a WWE wrestler turned brain specialist who, after retirement, secured a PhD and co-founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Former Northampton and England star Steve Thompson has revealed he is battling dementia

Having seen the devastating testimony of Steve Thompson, Alix Popham and Michael Lipman, who have been diagnosed with dementia in their 40s, Nowinski says rugby needs to act.

Since 2011, the NFL has enshrined in its collective bargaining agreement that only one contact session is allowed per week in training.

‘Limiting contact in practice is the biggest opportunity players have for a safer sport,’ Nowinski told Sportsmail.

‘The NFL has got to the point where 18 per cent of concussions happen in practice — it used to be closer to three-quarters. And it has been shown that the teams who cut out contact in practice have not suffered on the field. They’re healthier and develop new ways to tackle efficiently.

‘It’s a shame that change hasn’t happened yet. It’s simple maths — you can limit the number of days you get hit in the head.

Thompson won the World Cup with England in 2003 but admits he cannot remember the event

‘With that in mind having 10 or 11-month seasons for players is risky.’

He also believes children should learn to tackle later in life. At present tackling is introduced in England at Under 9s level.

‘We have research of hundreds of deceased American football players that shows the odds of developing CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) go up 30 per cent with every season you play,’ Nowinski added.

‘So starting tackling at 12 rather than nine can cut a huge percentage of problems for all players at every level.

‘We would not allow nine-year-olds to lift weights, but we’re fine with them being hit in the head? It’s crazy.

‘People argue that if they learn later it’s riskier, but we have evidence that isn’t true.

Once of WWE fame, American concussion campaigner and neuroscientist Chris Nowinski (left) has urged Rugby to follow NFL’s path and limit the amount of midweek contact training

‘It is not used anywhere else in life. If we used that for driving cars, we would have a lot of 10-year-olds in car accidents.’

Chris Boyd, director of rugby at Northampton, said Premiership teams already self-police the amount of contact in training.

‘The amount of bone on bone training we do at the club is two blocks of 90 seconds a week,’ he said.

‘In the two and a half years I’ve been here, we’ve had one concussion in training.’

And Bath director of rugby Stuart Hooper added: ‘We limit full collisions as the guys need to be ready to play on the weekend, and peak over a long period of time.’

At Harlequins they are using gumshields with micro-chips to help create a database of head-impacts on players.

Thompson’s former England team-mate Danny Care has backed the proposals that are designed to safeguard current stars as well as future generations

Scrum-half Danny Care is fully supportive, saying: ‘If we can help our generation and future generations, then we are more than willing to do it.

‘The last thing we want to see is more and more cases of Lipman, Thompson and Popham.’

While it is understood World Rugby, who are the main subject of the potential litigation brought by the former players, are insured against a concussion lawsuit, there are worries action may target individual doctors, not just governing bodies.

Dr Michael Turner, who heads the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation which is part-funded by the racing industry, the NFL and football’s PFA, told Sportsmail: ‘What the courts have said is that the club or governing body only had a certain level of knowledge, but the doctor who was looking after you had an individual duty of care to you personally.

‘Doctors are insured up to £10million. The NFL cases started with players suing the club, but ended up with them suing the doctor. Those medical staff are the ones who I think are most at risk.’

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