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More than 100 former rugby players are taking legal action against World Rugby and the national governing bodies of England and Wales over what they say was a failure to protect them from permanent injury caused by repeated concussions during their careers.

Many players in the group, which includes former internationals Steve Thompson (England), Carl Hayman (New Zealand) and Alix Popham (Wales), suffer from neurological impairments such as early onset dementia, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease.

The group is represented by Rylands Legal, which says it is in contact with more than 185 former rugby union players. The firm says the class action is being issued on behalf of the majority of those 185, with the rest taking legal action soon.

“This claim isn’t just about financial compensation,” Rylands Legal said in a statement, “it is also about making the game safer and ensuring current and former players get tested so that if they are suffering a brain injury they can get the clinical help they need.”

World Rugby told The Associated Press it had yet to receive notification of any formal proceedings being filed.

“It would be inappropriate to comment until we have received and reviewed the formal details of any potential action being taken,” the governing body said.

England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union have yet to comment.

Rylands Legal said it is the biggest class action of its kind outside of the United States.

In 2013, the NFL settled lawsuits from thousands of former players who developed dementia or other concussion-related health problems they say were caused by the very on-field clashes that fuelled the game’s rise to popularity and profit. The NFL has paid out more than US$800-million to date and is expected to cost it US$1-billion.

The settlement spared the league a trial over claims that it long hid what it knew about the link between concussions and brain injuries. The settlement fund is designed to cover more than 20,000 retirees suffering from brain disorders that include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. The settlement did not include an admission from the NFL that it hid information from players about head injuries.

In the rugby case, the allegations raised by the players include the failure of the governing bodies to “take proper steps as the game turned professional to respond to a disregard for player safety and brain health at the club and international level.”

It is claimed the rugby bodies did not educate the players about the risks of permanent brain damage or subject them to regular monitoring, and did not seek expert medical advice about the issue.

A preaction letter of claim was issued to World Rugby, England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union on behalf of a group of nine players in December, 2020.

“The players we represent love the game,” Rylands Legal said. “We aim to challenge the current perceptions of the governing bodies, to reach a point where they accept the connection between repetitive blows to the head and permanent neurological injury and to take steps to protect players and support those who are injured.”

Last week, former Wales rugby captain Ryan Jones announced he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable CTE.

Rylands Legal said it also represents 75 rugby league players as part of a separate but similar potential claim against England’s Rugby Football League.