A new study that shows playing elite rugby could lead to changes in brain structure "sets hares running", according to players' chief Damian Hopley, as the sport’s bosses continue to bolster safety initiatives.
More than one fifth of elite players involved in Imperial College’s Drake Rugby Biomarker Study showed signs of abnormalities to the brain’s white matter.
Rugby Players’ Association chief executive Damian Hopley admitted the report’s findings "will scare certain players", despite remaining convinced the game can stay at the sharp end of concussion research and safety.
The Rugby Football Union announced a raft of new measures to reduce head impact and concussion risks, joining forces with Premiership Rugby to invest almost £2.5million in brain assessments and care for former players.
"Obviously this sets hares running," Hopley said.
"Clearly it’s going to be a headline that will scare certain players.
"But we’ve got to take this in the round of what’s currently happening, and make sure that we are looking at all of the available research and making informed answers on the back of it."
The Drake Rugby Biomarker Study investigated 44 elite rugby players between July 2017 and September 2019.
The 41 male players and three female players all underwent MRI scans, with almost half undergoing a second scan a year later.
The results revealed that 23% of those scanned showed abnormalities to their brain cells, with the research carried out in collaboration with University College London.
"The crucial question is what is the relevance of the abnormality, and this study doesn’t address that," consultant neurologist Dr Richard Sylvester said.
"We can see abnormalities presumably related to head impact. What that means is potentially concerning, but it’s not clear.
"The abnormalities don’t just correlate in concussed players, they are there in other players.
"The head injury risk among players at the moment is a bit of an unknown and is causing an incredible amount of anxiety among current and retired players.
"These techniques will at some point help to alleviate that anxiety and make things easier to deal with in a way."
The RFU was involved in the Drake Foundation study, and has now confirmed details of a new action plan to continue the work to improve player safety.
The RFU wants all 13 Premiership club players to wear smart mouthguards for the 2021/22 and 2022/23 seasons, in a bid to create new limits for contact training.
Harlequins’ men and Bristol Bears Women have already trialled the technology, that allows support staff to monitor head impacts in real time.
The RFU and Premiership Rugby will also fund post-career brain health assessments and care for players, led by experts Professor David Sharp and Dr Sylvester.
Players’ chief Hopley believes current stars would be in favour of moves to reduce the amount of full contact work undertaken in training.
"I think players would welcome that, based on the conversations we’ve had," Hopley said.
"And it’s about how we manage that, how we do that appropriately, marrying the medical data we’ve talked about.
"Trying to give certainty to what’s contact, clarification and regulation around that is an important step forward."