Shane Williams is one of thousands of former rugby players who can only wonder at the impact their playing days will have in later life. The former Wales and Lions wing does not know how many concussions he suffered during his playing career because there were no head injury assessments then, just a macho culture that demanded you get back on your feet and play on.
His determination to find an answer led him to spend two weeks making a documentary. Shane Williams: Rugby, Concussion and Me is broadcast on BBC Wales and BBC iPlayer on Thursday at 8pm. In it he interviews players from both the men’s and women’s games who have suffered head injuries, as well as doctors and scientists, including Dr Bennet Omalu, who first discovered chronic brain damage among American footballers.
“The reason I wanted to do the programme was to learn more about brain injuries, see whether I have been affected and help educate people,” said Williams. “My children play rugby and I have mates in the professional and amateur games. The question was whether rugby was safe for them and the answers I found made it a resounding yes. I felt a lot more comfortable at the end of the fortnight, confident that everything that can be done to make the game safer is happening and that player welfare is, unlike in my day, is a clear priority.”
Concussion rates are falling, but it will always be an issue in a fast, physical, collision-based sport. Wales’s outside-half Dan Biggar has failed three head injury assessments this season while his international colleague George North may face a period out of the game after suffering a sixth career concussion against France last weekend. Both came under the guidance of independent concussion experts, a far cry from 2013 when the Australia flanker George Smith left the field during the final Test against the Lions in clear distress after taking a thumping hint from Richard Hubbard only to return to the field five minutes later.
“What happened to George would not now and rightly so,” said Williams. “Even though it was less than seven years ago, very little was known about concussion then. We have learned so much since then and players now are bring brought off even if a head knock is not obvious. A question I cannot answer is how many concussions I suffered as a player: I took a number of bumps and was knocked out a couple of times. I have had ongoing issues since, but a lot is unknown.
“I went to a lab with Dr Willie Stewart and he said the only time you could really examine a brain and learn about it is when a person has died. That is scary. I have seen a healthy brain and one that suffered trauma and that person had dementia later in life. It was overwhelming. We are learning a lot but still a long way from understanding it completely. That is why the work World Rugby is doing through education, law changes and head injury protocols is so important.
“It was not my intention to do the documentary and say parents should not let their children play a dangerous sport. Rugby for me is still the best game. It creates friend for life and you learn trust and discipline. It has been one of the best things to happen to me and I wanted to show how it is continually being made safer for our kids to enjoy.”
Williams shakes his head as he recalls his first game of senior rugby. “I had been giving their tighthead prop the runaround and he tried to take my head off. The culture has changed and you do not get that now, or punches being thrown gratuitously. Players still go toe-to-toe but legally for the most part. I played in matches when I would hear our front-row saying send a punch through to see what they have got. I was 11st soaking wet and a punch-up was the last thing I wanted. Those days, thankfully, are gone.”
Last year’s World Cup became notable for the number of red card shown to players, mostly for dangerous tackles as World Rugby refused to be deflected in its determination to lower the height of tackles. It has not been an issue in the Six Nations with the first three rounds producing four yellow cards, all except one for technical offences.
“The lowering of the tackle height is crucial,” said Williams. “You can still be physical, but you have to go lower. Players are having to change with the game and we are seeing smaller players coming through, running at shoulders rather than through people. Cheslin Kolbe is running the show at Toulouse and they have played him at outside-half, knowing big players will not want to try and tackle him.
“I would love to be playing know because it would be more difficult for tall players to tackle me legally. Size does not matter in the way it once did and when you look at the likes of Japan’s wings, Stuart Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny, elusive runners, the game is opening up for them. You want the physicality but also openness and we are seeing more off-loads and daring play. It will not change overnight and there will probably need to be further law changes, but rugby is going in the right direction.”
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