Sir Bill Beaumont, World Rugby Chairman

Rugby teaches many important life skills – the benefits of teamwork, hard work, camaraderie and most of all resilience. If nothing else in 2021, rugby was resilient.

Rugby, like many sports, returned at all levels following the darkest days of the first, second and third COVID-19 lockdowns around the world. We can all think of matches and moments that put smiles back on our faces. For me, seeing old friends at my club Fylde as the sport resumed was certainly a highlight, but so was seeing the stars of sevens shine at the Tokyo Olympics and a captivating programme of men’s and women’s November tests.

The enormous challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic were felt at all levels of the game, but it brought out the best of our sport and its values as we united to meet those challenges head on and emerge stronger. I am proud of how we acted, and I would like to thank every player, coach, match official, administrator and fan at every level for your unwavering enthusiasm.

Off the pitch, we continued to hear some moving personal testimonies from our game’s former servants about their fears and concerns around early onset dementia. These have been tough to hear – and I commend them for their bravery in speaking out. The rugby family has always supported its own – you do not retire from that family when you hang up your boots – and this is why it is more important than ever that 2022 is the year of player welfare in rugby.

I’ve been a player, a coach, an administrator, a tour manager, a proud parent of rugby playing son, a grandparent, and a fan. Like many sports, rugby is not a game that is risk-free. But it is a sport that cares deeply for and prioritises its players, in particular around concussion and head injury, and will continue to do so. In many ways, rugby is at the forefront of welfare advances in sport, but we will not stand still in our mission to make the game all it can be – as accessible, enjoyable and safe as possible – in order that parents and participants are reassured that we care deeply about our family, we are acting in line with science and evidence and put our players at every level first.

In July, World Rugby launched  a renewed commitment to cement rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare. Under six clear action areas, we set out how as a sport we will advance welfare for all our players – current, former and future. It is a plan for the game, by the game. In partnersip with unions and players, we have made good progress against that plan in the past six months:

  • We have implemented welfare-focused global law trials, launched injury-preventing community game law variations and continue to evaluate reduced tackle height and the impact of substitutions on injuries.
  • We have launched evidence-based contact training load guidance, which sets out the advised limits that promote welfare and performance best practice.
  • We have launched our commitment to establish brain health sevices for former players and are partnering with leading independent experts on wider brain health education.
  • We have partnered on ground-breaking research using Prevent Biometrics’ instrumented mouthguard technology to understand the frequency and nature of head impacts at every level of the game – this will inform how we will make the sport safer for everyone.
  • We have commissioned women’s specific research and launched the first-ever women’s welfare advisory group to steer unique research and injury prevention programmes for women ahead of what will be a massive year for women’s rugby with Rugby World Cup 2021, Rugby World Cup Sevens 2022 and the Commonwealth Games Sevens.
  • We are listening constantly to players, medical experts, scientists and lobby groups with the common aim of making the sport the best it can be. In the UK, World Rugby, the RFU and WRU have been actively engaged with the government’s inquiry into Concussion in Sport.

As an aside, it is pleasing to see some of rugby’s leading head injury assessment and concussion protocols being adopted by other sports, and we will continue to collaborate with contact sports, leading experts and relevant government agencies to implement a standard of care from grassroots to the elite level that will be an exemplar.

We must not and will not stand still. As a sport rugby, must continue to renew our mandate from parents and players to grow participation in the game, by demonstrating progressive change. This commitment is shared by everyone in World Rugby and across all of our 128 national member unions. To the former players who are struggling, I say your rugby family cares deeply and I will not rest until we understand how we can make rugby as safe as possible. No former player will be left behind.

In 2022, we will kick on and take our support for player welfare to the next level. We will futher implement our brain health action plan, supporting former players who have worries about their brain health via a global network of services run in partnership with national unions that provide access to specialist support and information, and to further understand any links between the game and neurodegenerative diseases. We will redouble on our investment to better identify and manage head injuries, promote individualised risk-based rehabilitation following a head injury and we will also sign innovative technology and research partnerships that will inform meaningful changes.

Moreover, I want our approach to player welfare to be shaped by everyone who has a stake in our game – from fans, to players, coaches, and medical staff. To that end, we will undertake rugby’s widest ever consultation on player welfare, with an intention to kick off the process during the SixNations. In the spirit of open engagement, Vice Chairman Bernard Laporte, Chief Executive Alan Gilpin and I will visit a series of community clubs around the world to hear from you, listen, and answer any questions. It’s all our sport, and we do not have a monopoly on good ideas.

We will continue to show up on player welfare, from our work with former players to school education and global roll out of evidence-based injury prevention programmes such as Tackle Ready and Activate. I want parents across the world to view rugby as a game that they want their sons and daughters to play, because of the many benefits it brings. Those benefits have been thrown into stark relief by their absence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Come this time next year, none of us wants to be talking about Omicron, Delta nor Covid. We want to be in a position to look back on a successful women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, and look ahead to the next men’s Rugby World Cup in France. But as – we hope – COVID-19 fades from our collective memories, player welfare must remain part of the conversation