A New Zealand-born former rugby international who owns one of the world's leading player agencies has joined the fight against concussion.

Shaun Longstaff, who was born in Wellington but played 15 tests for Scotland, contacted a lead researcher for the Rugby Health Project to offer to help recruit former players.

The project is the global extension of the pioneering work of AUT, which discovered that former rugby players who had suffered concussions were more likely to suffer cognitive difficulties in later life.

Longstaff was born in Wellington and left for the UK in 1994. He met his wife almost immediately and, with impeccable timing, made his mark in the European rugby scene as the game went professional, playing in Scotland and France.

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Again, with a great sense of timing, he set up a player agency in 2003 as massive broadcasting deals increased the flow of money into the game around the world.

Now, he senses, the time is right to devote some of his energies into the less glamorous side of the game: player welfare.

Speaking from his home in Bangor, Northern Ireland, where he lives with family and runs his Top Marque Sports agency, Longstaff said he was "putting my weight behind the cause because it's a bloody important cause and we have to get it right".

Shaun Longstaff in action for Scotland against the All Blacks at Carisbrook in June 2000. Photo / Photosport
Shaun Longstaff in action for Scotland against the All Blacks at Carisbrook in June 2000. Photo / Photosport

Fresh off a weekend that saw a brutally intense Six Nations test between Wales and Ireland, and saw an eighth Scotland player suffer a concussion, Longstaff said it was impossible to ignore the obvious.

"I've become increasingly concerned about the increase in nature of the physicality of rugby, especially at the professional level," he wrote in a letter to Dr Karen Hind, of Leeds Beckett University, who has taken a lead research role in the extended study.

Longstaff has volunteered for a role in the study, saying he was happy to be a general "dogsbody" if necessary.

"I want to do more. I don't want to sit idly and watch as some of my clients go through their careers while we blindly follow limited knowledge on concussion.

"I'd love to be part of something that was able to detect CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) or able to detect who is more susceptible to concussion than others. The tackle changes aren't enough in my opinion."

Longstaff is referring to the directive from World Rugby that tougher sanctions should be imposed on high tackles or any contact around the head area. Already in Super Rugby, the change in emphasis has been noted, with the Blues' Steven Luatua sent from the field for a high tackle in their round-two match against the Chiefs.

Longstaff was instrumental in setting up the Rugby Agents' Association and through his network is keen to engage as many former players as possible with the study.

The aim of the broader study is to further look at brain, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health among rugby players. A bigger data set could help unlock some of the answers around, in particular, brain health like why some players are more adversely affected by concussion than others.

"I heard a neuroscientist say recently that concussion was a fact-free zone," Longstaff said. "We know more about it than we did before but we don't know enough and when it comes to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy we don't really know until you're dead and we can cut the brain into slices.

Shaun Longstaff says he senses the time is right to devote some of his energies into the less glamorous side of the game: player welfare. Photo / Getty Images
Shaun Longstaff says he senses the time is right to devote some of his energies into the less glamorous side of the game: player welfare. Photo / Getty Images

"Some people ask me why I want to stick my head up about this because I'm an agent and my business is to put players into this sport. But if there is some way we could work out who was more susceptible [CTE or similar diseases] and who was already showing signs of it, then we could remove them quickly.

"The more players that sign up, the more it will help. We'll be getting more details, more data, better tracking of symptoms."

Longstaff said his personal motives were simple: "I don't want to fast forward 20 years and have damaged clients come to me and say, 'Did you know what was going on?' "

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.

In the 12 months since, the issue has only mushroomed as contact-sport codes and others like football grapple with the short- and long-term risks of concussions.

In the UK, a panel of doctors have called for tackling to be banned in children's rugby, which has been dismissed in some quarters as a knee-jerk response to a problem that requires a detailed longitudinal approach.

The professional generation has sometimes been described as the lucky one, not just because of the financial rewards for their sport, but also because the awareness of the insidious risks of head injuries has increased. Players in the past who are now suffering dementia, including Neil Wolfe and Waka Nathan, were exposed to far less rigorous analysis of head injuries.

"It was treated just like a knock on the knee," Wolfe said last year.

Longstaff does not necessarily agree with the term "lucky".

"Some people might cynically refer to this as the 'experimental generation'," he said.

"These players are so big and so fast. The collisions are frightening, but we don't still don't know what that does."

This study aims to fill in some of the blanks but everybody involved knows it will be a long process and one that might not ever find all the answers.

"We are trying to identify the extent of the issues so people have correct information and can make informed choices," said Professor Patria Hume, who led the original AUT study into the health of retired rugby players. "Taking the project to an international level will address the growing public interest in the long-term health outcomes of playing rugby."