Wallaby stars’ hearts shed light on tackle risks

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Some of Australia's rugby union greats are taking part in a study to reveal any damage years of tackles may do to the brains and hearts of former elite players. Former Wallabies Simon Poidevin, John Eales and Owen Finegan are among those undergoing tests by researchers from the Cardiac Imaging Group at the Heart Research Institute at Sydney University.

A total of 30 former international rugby union players will take part in the study, alongside 30 athletes who have played non-contact sports.

"They're essentially volunteering their bodies, to help us understand what a lifetime of rugby does," said head researcher Professor Stuart Grieve from The Heart Research Institute.

"We have a nation that's passionate about playing rugby, so it's incredibly important that we're well informed in how best to keep our players safe."

Advanced imaging technology will be used in the tests, providing data 10 times more detailed than previously available.

"Using these latest techniques we'll be able to ... provide some much needed hard data to inform recommendations around what constitutes safe sporting practice in Australia," Professor Grieve said.

The first stage of the research will study the brain using a technique called multi-brand diffusion imaging, to detect changes in the brain circuits. "Understanding the damage to these networks will help us understand the future risk for cognitive decline or dementia in these players," Professor Grieve said.

After undergoing the brain scan in a hospital in Sydney this week, Owen Finegan said he never considered the risks when packing down in the Wallaby scrum.

"You thrive on getting stuck into people and bashing into people and being physical and aggressive," Finegan said. "The bumps and the hits are all just part of the game, and you never really consider what it might do to you," he said.

 The study found footballers had enlarged aortas.

The second phase of the study explores the heart, looking at changes to the aorta caused by trauma build up when a player is constantly tackled during games and training.

It found many professional footballers have substantially enlarged aortas, which puts them at greater risk of rupture. Former Wallaby flanker David Croft said he had no idea the heart could be damaged through playing rugby union "You feel the effects of head injuries, but body injuries that could potentially effect the heart, no. And to my surprise, that is a concern," Croft said.

The aim of the study is to provide concrete proof of the potential for damage, to allow all codes of contact sport to understand the risks, warn their players and adapt their games to make them safer.

"We have a nation that's passionate about playing rugby, so it's incredibly important that we're well informed in how best to keep our players safe," former Wallabies skipper Simon Poidevin said.

"By learning the risks and how to avoid them we'll be making it a better game for everyone to enjoy."

Professor Grieve agreed. "As a concerned parent myself, I think what we're all really interested in is working out how our kids can keep playing contact sports like rugby which are a lot of fun to play. We just want to make sure it's safe," he said.

The company behind the technology has been trialling it in the United States, where there is growing alarm at the level of brain injury and illness suffered by former National Football League (NFL) players.
 

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