Pioneering research into the health of retired rugby players conducted in New Zealand will be taken to the global arena.
The Rugby Health Project, led by AUT University's Professor Patria Hume, which discovered higher rates of cognitive impairment in retired rugby players who suffered concussion during their careers, will be extended to the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
The research will be led by Hume, AUT colleague Dr Doug King and Leeds Beckett University's Dr Karen Hind.
"This is a significant development for sport research," said Hume. "Taking the project to an international level will address the growing public interest in the long-term health outcomes of playing rugby."
The topic has never been more relevant than it is today as contact-sport codes and others like football grapple with the short- and long-term risks of concussions.
The Herald last year investigated the potential link between head injuries suffered in rugby and the seemingly disproportionate number of players from the 1964 Taranaki Ranfurly Shield team and 1967 touring All Blacks who had either died with or were suffering from dementia.
The after-effects of concussion have led to the premature retirements of a number of professional rugby players recently, including Riki Hoeata.
In Australia the NRL is under fire for not doing enough to protect its league players, with James McManus filing legal action against his former club the Newcastle Knights for failing in its duty of care to him following a series of concussions.
The initial Rugby Health study proved a sometimes fraught exercise, with researchers and rugby administrators at odds over the significance of the findings. However, a paper that last year appeared in online journal Sports Medicine highlighted that players who experienced one or more concussions during their career experienced cognitive limitations in comparison to players with no history of concussion.
"We would like to know if the health outcomes found in New Zealand retired rugby players are also evident in other countries," Hume said.
The New Zealand study found that participants from the two rugby groups had sustained substantially more concussions than the non-contact sport group. Some 85 per cent of elite rugby players and 77 per cent of community rugby players reported having had at least one concussion, versus 23 per cent of non-contact sport players.
There is a growing body of evidence that points to concussion being a contributing factor in degenerative brain injuries such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has been especially prevalent among retired NFL players. However, there are still huge knowledge gaps, such as why some players will be more adversely affected by concussions than others.
The hope is that the more data that is collected, the fuller the picture will become.
The Global Rugby Health Research Programme collaboration will involve researchers from AUT, Leeds Beckett, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Regina and the University of Victoria in Canada, and Australian institutions HeadSafe, Sydney University, La Trobe and the University of Western Australia.
"In addition to applying the New Zealand project to their location, each country's research team is also adding to the core general health and neurological health studies. This will allow us to can gain important additional information - in particular on physiological biomarkers, brain health and bone health," said Hume.
The Australian study will include retired athletes from AFL, football and equestrian, while the Canadian study will involve former ice hockey and American football players. This will providing cross-sport analysis of the long-term effects of participation.
"By expanding further on the international scale, we are achieving a greater representation of ex-players and understanding of player welfare post-retirement across the globe," said Leeds Beckett University's Hind.