This coming January will mark 40 years since I retired from the game. Just weeks after what would be my final international match against Scotland, I was advised by our team doctor that I should call time on my career following a concussion in a (victorious) County Championship Final for Lancashire to protect my long-term health. The game today is unrecognisable from what it was 40 years ago. As a father of players, a grandparent and a fan, I welcome the progress the game has made. However, the need for rugby to continue to adapt and evolve is as important now as it has ever been.
Since I retired, rugby has made great advances to safeguard the wellbeing of our players, always acting on the science and robust evidence. Rugby has been at the forefront of sport in bringing in new protocols like the Head Injury Assessment, Graduated Return to Play and the Activate warm-up injury prevention programme to identify, manage and prevent head impacts and concussions at the elite and community level. Over recent months, World Rugby has launched the biggest ever study into concussion risk at men’s and women’s community and age-grade levels of the game, partnering with the University of Otago, in New Zealand. We’re investing in new technologies and law trials to improve player welfare. But we cannot and must not stand still.
As Chairman of World Rugby, I get to see the incredible benefits rugby brings players across the globe throughout their lives. It helps build confidence and understanding of what it’s like to commit to and work for a team. It brings enormous benefits for physical and mental wellbeing. And it brings us close friendships and a community in the rugby family for life. These benefits can only grow in importance following the global pandemic.
Like all sports, rugby is not a game that is risk-free. But it is a sport that cares deeply for and prioritises its players, in particular around concussion and head injury. We do that so that parents can feel safe and want their children to play.
Today, in line with our new strategic plan, World Rugby announces the next phase of our player welfare strategy to protect and grow the game we all love. Underpinning this strategy is a personal commitment from myself to never stand still when addressing questions of player welfare. Our ambition is for rugby to be the most progressive sport in the world on player welfare. We will do that by delivering against a six-point action plan.
First, support for former players – some of whom have come forward recently with their struggles adapting to life after professional rugby. I and my colleagues at World Rugby have been engaging and listening. Working with our member unions and International Rugby Players (IRP), we want to ensure no former player or their family members need suffer or worry in silence if they have concerns.
Second, we will continue to invest in advanced science into player welfare at all levels of the game, and the impacts of head injuries in particular. We are doubling our investment into player welfare, including working with a wide range of scientific institutions to continue to research and advance our understanding of the impact of head injury. This will also mean embracing innovations such as eye tracking technology and smart mouthguards to monitor head impacts in real time.
Third, we will continue to review and update the laws of the game to put player welfare first. From 1 August, we will trial a number of changes at a global level, including the 50:22 rule which has been trialled to good effect in domestic pilot trials with the ambition of creating more space across the pitch and reducing defensive line speed, thereby reducing the frequency and intensity of contact.
Fourth, we will commit to a dedicated approach to the women’s game – the biggest single opportunity we have to grow the playing of rugby. Our approach will be led by data and science and will not simply follow what works for the men’s game, with the ambition of supercharging the sport for women at all levels.
Fifth, we will redouble our efforts in education in the community and professional game on head injuries and health, from dedicated apps and websites with the latest information and resources on brain health and rugby, to the preventative Tackle Ready and Activate programmes.
Last, but not least, we will continue to listen and engage with the rugby family – and we will act on what we hear. We have had productive conversations with current and former players, and groups like Progressive Rugby. We all have the same love for the game at heart, and we want to hear from everyone about the best ways to secure its future. To ensure the legitimacy and growth of our game now and in future, we will never stop listening.
This is a plan for the game by the game, born of consultation, engagement and partnership with our unions. Over the coming months, Alan Gilpin, our newly-appointed Chief Executive, and I will be making a series of announcements in partnership with our unions shaped by the feedback we receive.
Finally, today, we are announcing a major funding package to support a programme of Independent Concussion Consultants for the elite game, who will support team doctors in assessing the suitability of a player’s return to play following a concussion once they have progressed through the six-stage Graduated Return to Play. These independent experts will be able to decide when elite players are fit to return to play and will support an individualised care process for players.
In my career, I’ve been a player, a coach, an administrator, a tour manager, a proud parent and a fan. My goal is for parents across the world to look at rugby and see a game that they want their sons and daughters to play, because of the many benefits it brings. That is the focus of this strategy. And the conversation will not stop here.
Sir Bill Beaumont is the Chairman of World Rugby, and a former British and Irish Lions and England captain.