Effects of concussion see former Rotherham Titans flanker Neil Spence add name to lawsuit against World Rugby and RFU

SUCH are the long-standing effects of concussion on Neil Spence that the former Rotherham Titans flanker admits mood swings, verbal outbursts and confused states saw him leave the family home and fear not being able to walk his daughter down the aisle.

CLAIM: Neil Spence, action for Rotherham Titans during a Powergen Cup Quarter Final match against London Irish in January  2003. Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images
CLAIM: Neil Spence, action for Rotherham Titans during a Powergen Cup Quarter Final match against London Irish in January 2003. Picture: Warren Little/Getty Images

The former England Under-21 international – who played in the Premiership with Rotherham, Leicester and Gloucester – is still aged just 44 but has been living with sub-concussive symptoms for more than eight years.

Yorkshireman Spence is one of six more former players suffering concussion-related problems to join a lawsuit against the game.

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A pre-action letter of claim was yesterday morning delivered to World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union on behalf of nine players being represented by Rylands Law.

LAWSUITE: England World Cup winner, Steve Thompson. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty Images.

In addition to England forwards Steve Thompson and Michael Lipman and former Leeds Tykes and Wales flanker Alix Popham, ex-Wales Under-20 centre Adam Hughes, 30, and Spence have also chosen to sue while four more new claimants remain anonymous.

Ex-Leeds hooker Thompson revealed last week he cannot remember playing in the 2003 World Cup final win due to brain injuries from his career.

It is claimed the sport’s governing bodies failed to provide sufficient protection from the risks caused by concussion with diagnoses including traumatic brain injury, early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain. The governing bodies have up to three months to respond.

Spence, who represented Yorkshire and also played for Harrogate, Otley, Bradford & Bingley and Ilkley, has detailed how he has been blighted by head trauma issues during and after his career.

Rotherham's Neil Spence salutes fans after a National League One win over Worcester in April 2003. Picture: David Davies/PA.

“If I am frank about it, I’ve lost count of the number of concussions and head injuries I have had through my career,” he said.

“I used to judge how well I had played based on how fuzzy-headed I felt at the end of a game.

“I first started to take note of my symptoms in 2012 after a nasty bang during a game left me with a constant headache. Soon after I knew that something must be really wrong when I was due to pick up my kids from nursery.

“I drove straight past their nursery and started to set up for a kids’ rugby training session at another school – I was a RFU community coach at the time.

CLAIM: Alix Popham, right, pictured with Richard Parks celebrating winning the Powergen Cup with Leeds Tykes back in 2005.

“It was only half way through setting up I realised I wasn’t supposed to be there as the school was closed, it being half-term. That led me to seek medical help. My GP sent me for a CT scan, but there was no abnormality.”

However, matters got worse for Spence in 2014. He recalled: “I was suffering terribly with mood swings, anxiety attacks, depression and anger issues. I felt like my head was going to explode. I’d feel angry and frustrated at even the smallest obstacles.

“I used to joke I must have dementia, as it’s been a long-time occurrence for me to get in the car for a journey I do on a regular basis, such as going to the supermarket, only to reach a roundabout and have no idea what turning to take. And I have been getting more confused of late.”

Spence, who has coached Halifax and Bradford Salem since retiring and now teaches PE and French in a secondary school, added: “My fiancé Sarah often says I have lost my fun side. I used to be the life and soul of the party, but feel that side of me is lost forever. She regularly finds items in odd places; something meant for the fridge in the dishwasher...

“I also am prone to violent verbal outbursts and regularly forget what I am talking about. My speech is slurred at times and Sarah and the kids complain I mumble and sometimes stop speaking mid-sentence. The pressure of my personality changes grew too much for us during lockdown. While home schooling for my son Zac, aged 11, and daughter, Millie, nine, I was at breaking point and moved out for two months. But we’re back together now fighting this diagnosis together. We also have a son Jake at uni’.”

Spence says he still “loves” rugby, its values, what it has taught him and experiences brought but added: “If I’d known I’d have ended up feeling like this, I may not have played at all.

“The diagnosis is a double-edged sword. There’s some relief as at least we now know what it is, but it makes thinking about the future very hard. My neurologist said I could get quite bad over the next ten years or it could be a steady decline over 30.

“The most worrying part is no one knows how fast it will take hold. I’m aware I have declined somewhat in the past few months. The thought of not seeing my children grow up, not seeing my grandchildren or walking my daughter down the aisle is somewhat unbearable.”

A joint statement from World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union said: “World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union can confirm they have received a letter of claim from solicitors representing certain players and will now take time to consider its contents.

“We have been deeply saddened to hear the brave personal accounts from former players.

“Rugby is a contact sport and while there is an element of risk to playing any sport, rugby takes player welfare extremely seriously and it continues to be our number one priority.

“As a result of scientific knowledge improving rugby has developed its approach to concussion surveillance, education, management and prevention across the whole game.

“We have implemented coach, referee and player education and best practice protocols across the game and rugby’s approach to head injury assessments and concussion protocols has been recognised and led to many other team sports adopting our guidance.

“We will continue to use medical evidence and research to keep evolving our approach.

“As with any potential legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics of the letter.”

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