Few newspaper revelations have had a greater impact in rugby-mad New Zealand than those of Herald sportswriter Dylan Cleaver's in March, when he found a disturbing number of recently retired top players, including All Blacks, were suffering dementia. Yesterday he reported that New Zealand Rugby is working with Statistics NZ to carry out a more scientific assessment of the damage rugby may be doing. The incidence of dementia among former players will be compared with the rate among those of similar age who have not played the game.
Rugby, of course, is by no means the only sport where brain injuries can result. All codes of football have to be concerned, including soccer where heading the heavier balls of a previous era appear to have caused mental deterioration in players later in life. Lighter modern balls may have reduced that risk but in rugby and league, the players have got bigger and the play is faster, putting them at greater risk.
Rugby coaches, players and officials seem more concerned at the risks this season. Referees are stopping play quickly when somebody's head has taken a blow and they are severely punishing dangerous play like running into or under a player jumping for a ball causing him to topple headfirst.
The players appear more willing to leave the field for concussion tests. There is much less visible impatience with precautions and foolish indifference to injury that players used to exhibit. They may have seen the shock of their grandparents at Cleaver's revelations of the condition of players that generation remembers watching in the 1960s. That was a great All Black era but too many of those who made it so are no longer capable of remembering much at all.
It must be hoped NZ Rugby's exercise with Statistics NZ is not beset by the disagreements that have frustrated a health study commissioned by World Rugby and carried out by researchers at Auckland's AUT. The Weekend Herald yesterday reported email disputes over what should be revealed to the public, particularly around the long-term cognitive impairment.
The subject is too important for any information to be withheld. Rugby is our national game, an activity in which we lead the world. We need to be able to watch the All Blacks play Wales with confidence that no player or his family will have cause to regret these games in years to come. Nobody wants to see rugby played in gridiron helmets but more use of headgear might not be a bad idea.
Ultimately though, it will always be the rules and the referees and the self-restraint of players at dangerous moments. The culture is changing and the game should be safer before today's players grow old.