Rugby Football Union 'yet to receive formal legal contact' over brain injury claims

  • Report from ITV News correspondent Dan Rivers

The chief executive of the Rugby Football Union has said the organisation is yet to receive any legal contact from a group of former players preparing to take action over brain injuries they claim to have suffered while playing the sport.

World Cup winner Steve Thompson is among a group of former international players preparing lawsuits against the RFU, the Welsh Rugby Union and global governing body World Rugby.

Chief executive Bill Sweeney insisted the RFU has not yet received any legal contact over the issue, but also conceded no one at the organisation has yet spoken to former Northampton and England hooker Thompson.

Thompson and a number of other ex-players have revealed they are suffering early-onset dementia symptoms in their early 40s - with the former front-rower admitting he cannot remember any of England’s matches at their victorious 2003 World Cup.

“It’s important to point out that we haven’t received any formal legal approaches yet,” said Sweeney. “So all we’re knowledgeable at is what we’re reading currently in the media.

  • Former rugby player Steve Thompson tells ITV News presenter Nina Hossain he wishes he never played the professional game.

“We don’t have any specific case or specific conditions laid out, so it’s a bit premature really and hypothetical to speculate on what’s going there," he said.

“And we haven’t got into any detailed discussions on insurance or cover because we don’t know the nature of what’s been presented yet.”

Asked if the RFU has contacted Thompson this week, Sweeney said: “We have tried to contact him this week. Unfortunately, we had the wrong number for him to begin with, which didn’t help.

“We only found that out after 24 hours. But we have tried to contact him. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to make contact yet.

Alix Popham (right) celebrates during a Six Nations match in 2007. Credit: PA

Former England flanker Michael Lipman and ex-Wales back-rower Alix Popham are also among the group of ex-players preparing legal action.

Sweeney pledged that the RFU will remain “open and transparent” in reacting to the specific situation, but also in continuing their work to minimise concussions and improve player safety in rugby.

“It’s a very serious matter, a very serious moment for us; we all love this game,” said Sweeney. “This has been a very challenging week.

“First and foremost, in these legalistic times, this is very much a human story.

"And we recognise what’s happening here, we recognise the difficulties the families are going through and then bringing these stories into the public.|

Steve Thompson (second from right) celebrating England's 2003 World Cup victory. He can't remember any of his games during that tournament. Credit: PA

“We applaud them for doing that, but also in the context of their motivation which is to improve the game and make it better and safer for future generations," he said.

“We would certainly share that and take it to heart. And it’s impossible not to be moved by it.

“It’s not a time to hide, not a time to go missing; it’s really a time to be open and transparent.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re making the necessary changes, to ensure we’ve got the safest possible game across all the different levels.

“It features in every strategic document we produce.”

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney Credit: PA

Sweeney conceded, however, that the RFU does not currently have any plan for monitoring or testing retired players when it comes to head or brain injuries.

“We don’t have any protocols for monitoring or screening players who have retired,” said Sweeney.

“It’s not to say that’s something we wouldn’t do, and if that’s something we need to consider and build in, then we’ll look at that.

“It’s important to stress that the aim to make the sport safer, and all the work that goes into that, that’s a journey that has no conclusion to it.”

Sweeney also insisted the RFU now has its finances under control, despite expecting to return at least a £30million loss for the 2020/21 financial year.

Michael Lipman is a former England international. Credit: PA

“We expect to lose about £135million worth of revenue through this financial year,” said Sweeney.

“And that on current forecasts means we’re expecting something in the region of a high £30million loss, which of course is difficult but is better than we were projecting even a month ago.

“We’re on top of the situation, having restructured the business that resulted in 119 redundancies.

“So the RFU business model is inherently still sound, but it will take a few more years to get back to being debt-free.”