fter Steve Thompson won the World Cup in 2003, he took part in the victory parade through the West End, was picked as one of the three best players in the world and went to Buckingham Palace, where they gave him an MBE. Thompson won a grand slam too, as well as a European Cup with Northampton Saints, and he played for the British & Irish Lions. Now, at the age of 42, he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy. “It’s the rugby that’s put me through this,” he says. And that’s why, if he could, he would undo all of it. “Some people go for the big lights, whereas I don’t want that. I never wanted that. I’d rather just have had a normal life.”
Thompson was on a job in Kendal not long ago, living away from home while he was repairing a burst water main. While he was there they were showing some of the England games from the 2003 World Cup on TV. He had never watched them back before, except for little bits and pieces when they were doing their post-match analysis during the tournament. But he did now. “And it was as if I was watching England play now. Except I was there. But I can’t remember at all being there. Honestly, I don’t know scores from any of the games.” A lot of his career is like that, patchy and full of gaps. He used to pride himself on his memory and have a head full of complicated lineout calls. “If you put them in now, not a chance. Not a chance.”
These days, he forgets. He forgets directions, which bits of a book he’s read and what TV shows he’s watched. Sometimes he even forgets his wife’s name. “I could look at Steph sometimes. And she says it’s like I’m a complete blank. And she’ll go: ‘I’m Steph.’ The name’s gone. Gone.” He suffers from anxiety, too, and has started having panic attacks. Sometimes he finds he gets aggressive for no good reason. “It’s weird. It’s a bit like an out-of-body experience, to be honest, and it happens a lot more now.”
And he wonders what the point of it all was, why he spent all those years playing a game that, he believes, has led him here. “I finished up with nothing really at the end of it.” Not even memories. “I can’t remember it. I’ve got no memorabilia. I’ve got no feelings about it. You see us lifting the World Cup and I can see me there jumping around. But I can’t remember it.” The money is gone, too. “No one could ever say that I’m money-orientated, because that’s the one thing I’m not. I just wanted a simple life. I would have liked to be able to work outside and use my body and my mind. That’s not going to happen now.”
What he does have is guilt. Steph is younger than him – “and I’m thinking, what have I done to her? She doesn’t deserve this.” She has taken the diagnosis in her stride. “She just went: ‘I’ll just have to care for you, won’t I?’” But he worries how she’ll cope. “I’m not a small bloke, you know, I’m 6ft 3in, 120 kilos. So if you’ve got to care for me, it’s quite a bit of meat to carry around.”
Thompson started playing when he was 15. “Was it a massive love of my life? No, no, not really. But it was a job. I happened to be good at it in those times. I enjoyed the company of the lads and things like that. But then would I do it again? No, I wouldn’t.” He has four kids, the youngest of them a one-year-old boy. They still go down to the local rugby club, for the social side. “But I don’t really want my boy playing rugby, the way it is at the moment.” He watches the players “knocking the hell out of each other” and he worries. “You know, when you’re younger, you feel a bit macho, and you feel like you can’t be broken.”
That’s how he was. Thompson was one of the first generation of professional players. When he started, he was training two nights a week. He remembers the switch to full-time training. “It was like: ‘So what do we do now, then?’ It felt like the coaches were thinking: ‘We’ll just knock the hell out of each other. That’s what we’ll do.’ And we did.” It was worse when he got called up to play for England. “It was so brutal during the week that you’d come home on the Thursday for your day off and I’d just be like: ‘I don’t think I can play, I feel utterly battered.’”
The game in those early professional years had a brutal culture, Thompson says. “They had us for that Six Nations period, and the autumn internationals, and they literally just beasted you until you fell apart.” They were back in training two days after they won the World Cup. A lot of them played for their clubs the next weekend. It made him feel like “a bit of meat”. But he was so anxious about being dropped that he got on with it.
He guesses a lot of players from that era may end up having similar problems. “I can see the numbers being high, especially for the first players to come through, what, ‘96-‘97 up to the mid-2000s, really.” He could see attitudes were changing by the end of his career. “The 2011 World Cup camp was completely different to the 2003 World Cup camp. In 2011 it was a lot more technical, whereas in 2003 you just had to beast yourself.”
Is rugby union more dangerous than we thought?
As ever with the brain, there is much we cannot know for sure. These diagnoses are a deeply unsettling development in players so young. The gathering of what science likes to call “hard data” takes many years and many studies, which is small comfort to those living with any repercussions in the here and now. It was not until 2019 that science established a raised incidence of mortality by neurodegenerative disease among professional footballers of the 20th century. Rugby is likely looking at a stronger association. Most players, we must hope, will be unaffected. The reality is we will start to find out only as they age. And, even then, is any risk simply a function of playing the sport or of other factors?
Rugby is 150 years old. Why is this a problem now?
If these cases of dementia are symptomatic of a new phenomenon, the key development appears to be when elite rugby players went full-time in the 1990s. Not only did the physical toll of the 80 minutes intensify dramatically, players were subjected to contact training throughout the week. A group of players intend to pursue a legal case against the rugby authorities claiming they were owed a duty of care given emerging evidence of the dangers.
Aren’t players better managed now?
Yes. Training is much more sophisticated than in the wild west of the early years of the professional era. Awareness and treatment of head injury has also been transformed in the last decade. Alas, with better preparation of players, the intensity of the 80 minutes on the field has continued to escalate. There is no way of knowing if the net effect of this relative shift in load from the week to the weekend mitigates the risks.
What can rugby do?
This is probably/hopefully a problem restricted to the elite game, where the attrition rates are so much higher. Certain measures are already in place since the Thompson generation played. Head injury must be managed ever more carefully. Science is on the cusp of developing technologies to detect brain injury more effectively and swiftly, but this could be a double-edged sword if it goes on to reveal a much higher incidence than previously thought. Current attempts to change the nature of the game are likely to prove hopelessly peripheral. There is no easy answer to that.
He didn’t worry about it, because he didn’t think he had to. “I don’t service my own car. Someone else does that, because that’s what they do. I was there to play rugby. And then you’ve got people there that look after you.” But the players, in that culture, with the absence of regulation, were not protected. “You think how many specialists were out there watching that and not saying anything,” he says. “They knew what was happening. And nothing was done about it. People were getting knocked on the head and it was not being recorded. I’m knocked out in training and it was always: ‘It’s just a knock on the head, he’ll be fine.’
“In the old days it was a bit of a laugh. If someone got whacked in the head, it was: ‘Oh, look at him, he’s had a belt! He’ll be up in a minute.’” One of his doctors asked him how many concussions he’d had. Thompson asked him back what counted as a concussion. “Is it when you’re not totally out? And he said: ‘No, that’s not true any more.’ And I’m like: ‘Well, I was doing it every training session then, really, when you look at it.’
“The amount of head bangs I had in training. I was known for it. ‘Oh, he’s having a little sleep, he’ll get up in a minute.’” He remembers all the gruelling sessions on the scrum machines. “There’s so much pressure. They aren’t moving, they’ve got pegs in it, they’ve got people stood on it, and you drive into it, all that weight coming through.” He’d push until the point when his head started to go. “And suddenly, as the pressure comes off, you start getting the light, the little white dots, and you don’t know where you are for a few seconds.”
He is angry with the clubs, who he feels haven’t provided proper aftercare, angry with the Rugby Football Union, and angry with the Rugby Players’ Association, who he believes should be fighting harder for the players. “I don’t want to kill the game. I want it regulated.” He thinks professional players should be allowed to play only if they have a brain scan at the start of every season. “Every year you drive your car you get an MOT. The body’s exactly the same thing. If it’s not working, you shouldn’t be doing your job. It sounds awful, because lads are going to have to retire at 22 or 23. But trust me, it’s better finishing then than to be where I am now.”