Tim Stimpson talks Progressive Rugby to TRU

Tim Stimpson is part of the lobby group, Progressive Rugby, which is aiming to protect players from brain trauma
©Leicester Tigers

There's too much evidence to suggest that rugby can carry on as it is. 

There is a link between rugby and brain damage.

The Drake Rugby Biomarker Study of 44 elite rugby players (July 2021), led by Imperial College London, found that professional rugby may be associated with changes in brain structure. The Study shows that 23% of elite adult rugby players had abnormalities in brain structure, and half showed an unexpected change in brain volume.

Progressive Rugby are a non-profit lobby group, comprising of current and former players (amateur and professional); medics; academics, referees; coaches; teachers administrators and fans. 

“Progressive Rugby ask that World Rugby urgently address the current elite return to play protocols, which we maintain are not fit for purpose and ensure this great game is sustained for future generations.”

One of the leading names in the group is Tim Stimpson, a player with two hundred games of professional rugby under the belt.  Most notably he is known for winning back-to-back Heineken European Cups for the Leicester Tigers and representing England and the British and Irish Lions.

Tim has walked to the North Pole for a Guinness World Record for the Wooden Spoon Charity that he is an honorary President of, has numerous charity golf days under the belt and steered his village cricket team to finals and is campaigning to save his village football team from closure. 

Q Why are you involved with Progressive Rugby?

When I was a player, you accept that you are going to put your body through the mill. You accept you're going to come out with sore bits, sore shoulders, sore knees, sore ankles. But we were never conscious at the time that knocking our heads around was going to cause brain damage or early onset dementia. 

I got involved because I realized that some of my teammates have got brain damage probably caused by collisions they have endured in a rugby. I had a long rugby career from the age of five and six until 34. I wanted to know whether I was okay, whether I was healthy, thanks to the support from these guys, I've been given the all-clear.  

There are former players, out of obvious frustration, fear and sense of loss of self, that have taken their own lives, which is horrendous.  In hindsight this is rooted by their commitment to the sport they loved, it's ended up causing the worst possible catastrophic loss for their families. 

We have got to be thinking about the wives and the families and the kids who were going to get left behind prematurely. If these guys and girls are going to be suffering long term consequences from playing the game that we love. That's why I've got involved. It's important that we learn, make changes quickly, protect the players, and protect the game. 

I'm in a privileged position to have an opinion that is listened to and asked my contacts in the world of wellness, physical wellbeing, and mental wellbeing to try to help. My kids play rugby. I'm not in any way wanting to stop them play because rugby's given me the life, the confidence, the coping skills and the mates that I love. 

Rugby is an amazing sport because it teaches you about physical responsibility and dependency and enables you to cope with other stresses that come along in life. I want the game to survive in the same way I want the players to survive. 

Q What is Progressive Rugby (PR)? 

We are a lobby group working with World Rugby, working with all the vested interests within the sport to change and drive it quickly to make the game survive. With PR I work alongside former World Rugby doctors as well as doctors researching from within the progressive rugby movement. These are professionals who have spent their lives dedicated to our beautiful game.  

And not just doctors, but referees and volunteers and lots of former players that we just care about the game of rugby, we want rugby to be sustainable. We don't want someone to close rugby down and say it's not safe. The only way of protecting the game is to make sure it is safer.

The risks of continued and future legal action and the risk of more players getting injured is unavoidably real, there is a body of evidence that says that the game needs to do more. Players need to be stood down until there's proof that it's safe for them to come back. 

The testing and medical research that's going on is telling the decision-makers of the game, in black and white, that sub-concussive impacts, bangs on the brain that don't make you dizzy or don't make you ill in the short term, are dangerously and irreversibly accumulative.

In my opinion it is important that we realize and address the evidence that the game is putting players under too much stress. There is too big a risk. It's important that we protect players doing whatever we can to support players who have already, unbeknownst to us, damaged their brains. 

Rugby players will always play and will always put their own personal safety second.  

Q Where does the conversation start without compromising the game?

To do it safely straight away. It's the quality of the of the doctors. We've got guys who have spent their lives committed to rugby, guys on the touchline that have been concentrating on the health of players, they've been working with World Rugby and trying to keep the game safe. 

Once you have a bang on their head, you're then susceptible to more damage, we need to something called ‘Return to Play’ in the professional game. There are separate concepts of overprotected and the evidence of the science we now have, we now know what is safe and what is not, we know that rugby union at the highest-level is unsustainable and is not safe as it is now.

There needs to be a strict medical evidence based decision protocol. There seems to be a very slow adoption of the new science, but this is urgent, change must be rapid, the only solution is to protect the game that we all love. We can find a balance, a safe place where we can still be physically one-hundred percent committed to the game but with a minimal chance of suffering long term brain damage. 

We need to put some methods in place that restrict and lessen the number of times that players are getting bangs on the head, especially in training, so we can make massive changes. Like they have done in other sports like American football, less impact training, like we're talking about in football, not heading the football too many times. 

Let’s make sure that players aren't being exposed to unnecessary risk by doing too much physical contact training and making sure they're not playing too many matches. And if they do suffer from a from a head bang, measure the impact using the available science for example gumshields can be used to collect data to measure the rotational and direct force that a professional player is under.

To be able to provide the evidence to say that that child or that player can retake the field having had a bang on the head. The experts are talking about two weeks as a minimum, potentially longer. I'd like to lengthen that return to play back out to where it was when I was playing. 

That evidence can then be spread throughout the whole community game, women's game, the youth game so that we restrict to a safe level the number of times that players take contact.

Q How do we get the whole community behind the changes needed?

We are all rugby people. It's not a question of anyone in group wanting to stop rugby or kill the game. We want to protect the game because we all love it so much.  We are not here as part of a big legal battle; we are not talking about money or compensation. That isn't our goal. Our goal is to make the game safe and to make it safer for people that play it.  

There's a there's a legal court case with about a hundred and fifty former professional players suing World Rugby for not doing enough to prevent their brain damage and therefore causing it. There are players who have found themselves being frequently forgetful. 

Alex Popham is a very vocal advocate for change. He's a friend of mine that I played rugby with at Leeds was a tenacious Welsh and British Lions back rower. He was cycling around his home in Wales and couldn't remember how to get home. 

Now I'm now working with Alex to try to help him mainly as a mate, but also using innovative health interventions to try to make him as healthy as possible and delay any regression in his ability to think. And there is World Cup winner Steve Thompson is another friend of mine who played for England. He is suffering. 

Studies have been taking place around the world at different levels, at junior level, professional level, international level.  We need err on the side of caution, develop new training procedures, we should ask our players to play less until we fully understand the long-term health issues and that we can agree as a body that we have mitigated as much as is acceptable. 

Studies reveal there is a link between contact and reduced blood flow to brain. This is not result of ‘big hits’ or concussions but number of blows each brain takes, directly or indirectly, over a prolonged period. 

“This research further demonstrates that caution is the order of the day when it comes to concussion. The short and potential long-term effects of a RTP process that allows players to return within just a week.

Q What has changed since your day?

I started rugby as a kid in the 70s and was knocking myself around in the 80s and 90s and noughties. We didn't have the science, or the evidence, when I was playing mini rugby. I still love the idea of players putting their bodies on the line, risking pain for your mate is brilliant and it teaches life skills, it gives you memories and experiences that I find it very difficult to find outside of rugby. 

Other team sports have a sense of camaraderie but it's a little bit different from having a giggling Martin Johnson lay on top of you while someone kicks him in instead of you and he’s saying to me “catch the next high ball. I'll look after you.” It is ironic and paradoxical to say, but you feel very safe. I felt very safe playing for those teams because I knew that my mates would look after me. 

I've asked my team mates to help me play the game and get through concussions, most players will self-regulate. A player will stay on the pitch because he wants to play for his country. He doesn't want to let their mates down. It must be taken out of the player's and the clubs decision. The clubs are always under pressure to play its strongest team, fighting to avoid relegation, fighting to win a trophy or just entertaining crowds to keep the gates up.

When I played, I sometimes played-on knowing I had a mild concussion. In one game I had a bang on the head and had lost vision, I just played on just using my peripheral vision.  There were times where I've been knocked on the head in an international game and I've lost my short-term memory but haven't gone off the field. 

Current HIA protocol gives a player six days to recover, can return to training and is passed fit to play. When I was playing it was a mandatory three weeks. I don't see any evidence anywhere that says it's safe for players to come back in six days. The first thing we should be doing is making sure that the return to play protocol is fit for purpose and so that it's almost incumbent upon the game. 

There's been a cultural shift from when I played the game, you didn't talk about your injuries, you don't bring your troubles to work. You come to work, you graft, you get your job done. Now I think there's an awareness that we are not robots, we are human, our brains are soft, we bleed like everybody else. 

Q How does the player, coach and manager change culture? 

It was just put up or shut up. I don't believe in people hiding behind that. I don't believe in hiding behind the strengths and the hard work with the people. I believe that we should all be held accountable. By getting to know people's needs, understanding what makes them tick. I found that you can get a hundred percent effort even when times get tough, when people know that you care and you're pulling in the same direction.

We're now starting to see that it's not okay to put your brain through those repetitive concussive episodes. At training you go into contact and get whacked, or you're in a mall, you're in a rock, five of the bloke’s smash into that, which is causing a bit of a whiplash causing a bit of a brain wobble. This is training. 

I would probably make a hundred tackles in training to try and make five or ten in a match. As well as all the rucking and mauling, Now I know that the evidence is there that what we were doing in training, at Leicester. and at Newcastle, where it involved a lot of physical contact. Was perhaps not right. Evidence I've seen suggests that we are being exposed to far more dangerous impacts by training like this.

There is a very good example at Harlequins especially last year, they brought in some great technology and protection, and they've reduced to optimise the amount of physical contact which the player goes through in the training week. They're having far, far fewer tackles, far, far fewer mauls and breakdowns when their brain is being wobbled by collision. On a Saturday they were now sharper, I think that’s got a lot to do with their fantastic run going on to win trophies last year. 

There is an awakening to say that we need to treat people as individuals. We need to understand their physical and mental needs. That included professional sport, community sport and in every workplace. If you want someone to be productive, happy. Content, to feel safe in their place of work, then more effort needs to be put into protecting individuals. 

Q What are you up to now?

A charity I founded, Sporting Partnerships, is part of a charity rugby match that will pay tribute to a talented soldier called Elliot Hennell. Sadly, he took his own life in 2020 and here we are playing the inaugural Frontline vs Services rugby match at Richmond RFC.  

It is a game going on between a selection of former military personnel representing a Veterans organisation called Pals Battalion. They are playing a London ambulance service. It is a celebration of coming together through rugby to enjoy each other's company on and off the field.

I have huge respect for Richmond Rugby Club, they have taken this idea of being a true community club to heart. It's a very challenging time for any club and it's obviously a busy time of year. They've been incredible, really, really supportive and have invited all of their own members to come down and join in in this celebration.

As a way of thanking our frontline responders. London Ambulance Service has been put through an unprecedented amount of stress. I don't know the amount of trauma that people are now facing during this COVID pandemic. It hasn't gone away. 

Through the Wooden Spoon we generate grants for disabled children. It is great to see that Berkshire Brigands and Surrey Chargers providing a Mixed Ability Rugby game. Anyone who cannot join in the full version of rugby can participate. The ultimate in inclusivity in sport.   

We will continue to raise awareness of the need to look after each other and try to raise as much as we can and support some great causes. Causes like Pals Battalion who work tirelessly within the Veteran community and @looseheadz who are trying to put a mental fitness rep in every rugby club in the UK. 

I'm concerned that first-responders have already suffered because of the commitments to their job, I'm fearful of the inevitable coming of long-term impact that sometimes called post-traumatic stress disorder and the anxiety around what they put themselves through.

I don't want people to be alone, I want people to know that what they're feeling is natural way of coping with horrible situations. We need to show our appreciation and support and do more to protect and look after the families that are now being impacted by COVID and the pressure that these people have been put under today.