A group of former international rugby league players have formally announced their intention to bring legal action against the Rugby Football League, claiming the governing body failed to protect them from the risks of brain damage caused by concussion. That group includes the former Great Britain half-back Bobbie Goulding, who has revealed he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 49.
Goulding is among a group of 10 players who are planning to launch action, but the lawyers representing the players say they are aware of 50 former professionals, some of whom are in their 20s, who are showing symptoms associated with neurological issues such as early onset dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and motor neurone disease.
Richard Boardman of Rylands Legal, who is also representing 175 former rugby union players in a separate lawsuit, is helping the players, with Goulding arguably the most high-profile following a 17-year career as a professional with club and country.
“For something like this to come out of the blue and hit me like a bus is hard to take,” Goulding said. “I didn’t think about dementia at all, I just thought it was the way life was. When I played I was 13 stone and 5ft 6in, playing against blokes who were 6ft 2in and 19 stone, and didn’t even bother about it. But it takes its toll in the end. I played within days of serious knockouts on at least three occasions.
“I remember playing on a Sunday for Leigh at Huddersfield towards the end of my career. I was in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary on the Sunday night after being seriously knocked out and played the following Saturday against Batley.”
The former St Helens and Warrington forward Jason Roach is also among the players launching action. He, too, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable CTE. “I started forgetting things about 10 or 12 years ago before I was 40, even major events,” he said.
“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.”
The former Wales prop Michael Edwards and the former Scotland forward Ryan MacDonald have also received the same diagnosis at the ages of 48 and 43 respectively. Boardman insists the players in question are not solely seeking financial remuneration – they are determined to make rugby league a safer sport for future generations of players.
“The vast majority of the former players we represent love the game and don’t want to see it harmed in any way,” he said. “They just want to make it safer so current and future generations don’t end up like them.
“Younger players such as Stevie Ward, Rob Burrow and Sam Burgess have spoken publicly about their own brain damage, so these issues aren’t restricted to older generations. This is why we’re asking the RFL to make a number of immediate, relatively low-cost changes to save the sport, such as limiting contact in training and extending the return to play [following a concussion].”