Leeds Rhinos’ former captain Stevie Ward has announced his retirement from rugby league aged 27 after a series of concussion issues.
Ward played just one game for the club in 2020 while dealing with recurring symptoms, at a time when concussion issues are becoming an increasing focal point for several contact sports. He made his debut for the club as a teenager in 2012 and went on to win every major domestic honour during his 136 appearances. He is also a great advocate for Men’s Mental Health
Ward explained: “I have come to the conclusion, after over 11 months of severe symptoms, that I need to give this injury the respect and time it deserves and cannot put my health and brain to any further risk and detriment. On a daily basis, I struggle with migraines, dizziness, motion sickness, sensitivity to light and screens, short-term memory issues, slurred speech, and an inability to exercise or do daily tasks without irritating my symptoms.
“I love the game of rugby league. I am immensely proud to have competed on some of the biggest stages next to childhood heroes and test myself to the absolute limit while feeling the incredible buzz from the Leeds fans after being one myself as a youngster. I thank every player that I have played with and against, and I am especially grateful for the incredible friendships the sport has given me.”
Ward says he will now dedicate time to ensuring the sport does all it can to protect its players and find out more about neurological impairment, inspired by his former team-mate Rob Burrow. Ward added: “I am left motivated to help get our sport to a place where it can ensure the players’ long-term safety whilst keeping the beauty and grit of the game.”
“The biggest question is what can be done to make things safer for our players now. We need to be more proactive and not rely on another generation of players to be guinea pigs for future research that will take years to give us the answers we need now. Part of this questioning has to look into the culture and stigma around concussion within the game and how we can use the anecdotal evidence that we are receiving from former union and league players with the science that is already out there to draw connections to the part of the sport we can adapt.”
At the same time the Rhinos have revealed details of ground-breaking research that is being done into collisions in rugby league alongside professionals from Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds. It involves using new technology in mouthguards to measure the impact on players during the 2020 Super League season.
A Rhinos statement explained: “The Prevent Biometrics mouthguards are fitted with a number of sensors that can measure head acceleration and impact location during collision events. The team have been working to determine the accuracy of the mouthguard data, to measure collision events and direct contact with the head by assessing the data against video footage. The results of this work have shown that the mouthguards are accurate for measuring head impacts and collision events during rugby league matches.
Leeds Rhinos are helping to investigate the impact of collisions in rugby league (Image: PA)
“Next season the project will continue to better understand the collision and impact events experienced by players during Super League matches and the potential factors that influence them. This will help develop the understanding of the collisions, head accelerations that players experience, and help players both prepare for them, whilst limiting unnecessary exposure.
“In future, this data can be received by medical staff in real-time via a mobile application and has the potential as a useful tool in the understanding and management of head impacts and concussion, alongside established methods such as the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) tool.”
Professor Ben Jones – who is also pathway performance director at the Rhinos and head of performance for England – explained: “Rugby league has always been a sport that is open to research and change to improve both the performance and wellbeing of players. We all recognise that rugby league is tough, and that players train hard week in week out, to perform at their best.
“We also appreciate the sacrifices players make and that injuries do happen. There is a huge amount of research ongoing across rugby league looking to monitor the load players are exposed to, specifically related to collisions in general but more specifically head collisions. We recognise that we need to understand the collisions players are exposed to, and this is an example of a study with help us do that.”