A paper was released this morning in online journal Sports Medicine. Don't be fooled by the unsexy title - A Comparison of Cognitive Function in Former Rugby Union Players Compared with Former Non-Contact-Sport Players and the Impact of Concussion History - this is a eureka moment for the sport. Here's why:
1. This is a definitive link established between concussion in rugby players and cognitive difficulties - probably more commonly known as brain defects - following retirement. Players who experienced one or more concussions during their career have been found to perform worse in tests that measure cognitive flexibility, complex attention, executive function and processing speed. To put it in layman's terms, that is the ability to understand and process information quickly, to make rapid decisions, to switch attention between tasks and to track and respond to information over long periods of time.
2. This is science, not one man's opinion. It is robust study of 366 people and the paper is authored by some of the foremost minds on the subject, including lead author and researcher Patria Hume, neurologist Rosamund Hill and Stephen Marshall, a New Zealander working out of the esteemed Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina.
To be accepted for publication it must pass a peer-review process.
3. New Zealand Rugby's senior scientist Ken Quarrie is one of the authors. The adverse findings might be difficult for rugby to digest, but at least they're chewing on it.
4. It took a long time to get to this point and a lot of fraught discourse between the AUT researchers and World and New Zealand Rugby, highlighted in this story. You have to figure the publication of this paper indicates long-awaited common ground.
5. In a strange sort of way, it provides reassurance for players who might be struggling. While we are a long way from determining absolute cause and effect, why some players might be affected and others not, and why some concussions or sub-concussions might be more dangerous than other, at least we now have acknowledgement that rugby head injuries may be behind cognitive difficulties later in life.