A GWENT former professional rugby player has spoken out about his diagnosis of early onset dementia.

Lenny Woodard, 46, from Croesyceiliog, has joined more than 180 former rugby players in England and Wales in legal action against World Rugby, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and Rugby Football Union (RFU). The claimants have said the governing bodies were negligent in that they failed to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent injury caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows.

Mr Woodard, who played rugby union for Pontypool, Ebbw Vale, Pontypridd - as well as in uncapped games for Wales and rugby league for Bridgend Blue Bulls, Celtic Crusaders and Wales - was diagnosed with the condition in June last year.

The National Wales: Lenny Woodard being tackled. Picture: Lenny WoodardLenny Woodard being tackled. Picture: Lenny Woodard

He told the Argus he had decided to be tested for early onset dementia in March 2020 after talking with former Wales back-rower Alix Popham, who had himself recently learned he had the condition.

“Then I got the diagnosis of early onset dementia in June last year," he said. "It’s now come out because we are taking legal action which we hoped it wouldn’t come to.”

Mr Woodard made the decision to get tested after he noticed he was forgetting things, like leaving the toaster or the oven on, where he was during journeys, conversations and some games he had played in.

“It’s things that you shouldn’t be forgetting in your 40s," he said. "Some people say they have the same problems, and they don’t have dementia, but we know ourselves.”

Mr Woodard believes head injuries he suffered while playing were to blame for his condition. He suffered a number of head injuries during his career, with the first concussion at the age of 11.

“I also had one at 16 when I was playing in a sevens tournament in Blaenavon and I got swung around in a tackle and into a player’s knee," he said.

The National Wales: Lenny Woodard is among more than 180 players taking legal action against World Rugby, the WRU and RFU. Picture: Lenny WoodardLenny Woodard is among more than 180 players taking legal action against World Rugby, the WRU and RFU. Picture: Lenny Woodard

“And there was one when I was playing at Pau for Pontypridd and I couldn’t see for around 12 hours afterwards.”

He also believes that there needs to be fundamental changes made, and that there should be a more proactive approach rather than a reactive approach.

“I went professional in 1997 with Ebbw Vale and they implemented head injury protocols in 2012," he said. "That should have happened way before.

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“They [the governing bodies] are very slow to react.

“From my perspective, the late 90s and early 00s were all about getting as big as possible and as quick as possible and the collisions were bigger as people were getting faster and with more mass.

“What we didn’t know was those hits would cause problems in later life.”

He continued: “The research was out there. Concussion doesn’t care what sport it's in. It is what it is.”

He continued: “We used to have a game on a Saturday and then be back in training on a Monday and Tuesday and then a full contact session on a Wednesday and it wasn’t needed.

"Not only does it increase the risk of injuries to the head, but also to other parts of the body as fatigue sets in.

“I probably had more hits to the head in training than in games.

“Even if a contact session was 20 minutes rather than an hour, it would be a start. There also should be a mandatory three-week rest period after a concussion.”

He also believes that the culture of the sport plays a part. “If you get injured, you want to be back playing as soon as possible because you’re only on a short-term contract and you don’t want to lose your spot," he said.

The National Wales: Lenny Woodard in action for Wales against South Africa. Picture; Lenny WoodardLenny Woodard in action for Wales against South Africa. Picture; Lenny Woodard

“Coaches also want to win, and they won’t want their players off. Someone should take charge and overrule those decisions and pull the player off.

“I’d like to see players not having the same issues as if the lessons are not learnt that would be a tragedy.”

Ryland’s Legal is representing the players – which includes Alix Popham, Adam Hughes, Ryan Jones, Steve Thompson and Carl Hayman – and has confirmed that the case is likely to go to court, with papers due to be issued yesterday, Monday.

In a statement they said: "This claim isn't just about financial compensation; it is also about making the game safer and ensuring current and former players get tested so that if they are suffering a brain injury they can get the clinical help they need.

"The players we represent love the game. We aim to challenge the current perceptions of the governing bodies, to reach a point where they accept the connection between repetitive blows to the head and permanent neurological injury and to take steps to protect players and support those who are injured."

A statement issued on behalf of World Rugby, WRU and RFU, said: "We care deeply about all our players, including former players and never stand still when it comes to welfare.

"Our strategies to prevent, identify and manage head injuries are driven by a passion to safeguard our players and founded on the latest science, evidence and independent expert guidance."