FOR those of us who have the image of Bobbie Goulding’s beaming post-Wembley 1996 smile etched on to our memories the news that the former Saints skipper has been diagnosed with early onset dementia is shocking.

His tale, detailing incidents in the past, made for harrowing reading as he explained why he is among a group planning to sue the Rugby Football League for negligence over what they say was a failure to protect them from the risks of concussion during their careers.

Goulding has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a progressive brain condition which is thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

Understandably, the case brought a mixed reaction; a wave of sympathy and well wishes, a robust defence from current senior figures that the game has moved on and protocols are more stringent now, plus quite a few harshly saying, “you knew the risks.”

And is possible to give a reaction that weaves in all three of those elements into a response.

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The game has improved out of sight in the past few decades, even from the early days of Super League. In his autobiography, The Quiet Man, former Saints skipper Chris Joynt described being knocked out at Hull in the play-offs in 2001, but going back on after a couple of minutes.

“I suffered delayed concussion and had problems for a month after that and was slurring my words like a drunk,” he wrote.

On-field and off-field it has changed and players’ keenness to get back on to the field is taken out of the equation.

Anyone remember game-as-anyone Saints second row Paul Round spinning out of a tackle, legs buckled and facing the wrong way during a game in 1986? With the Scaff yelling ‘Rambo, Rambo, Rambo’, Round was reluctant to leave the field until Jeanette Smith finally coaxed him off.

Plenty more will have stayed out there over the years – and suffered the consequences in the days and months after. And now we are reading years.

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In terms of assessment, the game has come a long way from “how many fingers have I got up?” to independent head checks and full week of following protocol and passing the relevant tests.

But obviously, we can’t as a game stop there. Players are still getting knocked out regularly – and in some cases having their careers cut short and seeing an impact on their long-term health.

So, what else can be done to make it safer without sanitising it to the point where it becomes a different ball game?

It is a contact sport – based on multiple bone-crunching collisions, an aspect that draws a particular type of player to use their particular skillsets and their love of a physical challenge. But it is too callous a response to say, “take it or leave it”.

The spectators like the big hits, too, but there are modifications that can be made to make the 80 minutes on the field safer without diminishing the gladiatorial aspects or turning it into what critics of change call, “tick and pass”.

Watching the games behind closed doors during the lockdown period was pretty revealing. Without the hubbub generated by the fans, you get a rare insight into the noises that emanate from the arena during each unforgiving 80 minutes.

The verbals, sledging and alas in one unfortunate case you hear the crack of a leg breaking and the sound of pain in those seconds before the doctors can do their bit to mitigate it.

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But the biggest impression made was that repetitive thud, of bone on bone, particularly when it is a ball carrier like Regan Grace, Mark Percival or Tommy Makinson hitting it up at pace.

How many times do you see one of those players take a wallop starting as an attempt to hit the ball but bouncing up towards the head?

So yes, the game is much cleaner now – and as much as some people glorify “bringing back the biff”, gone are the days when play makers like Hull KR’s Great Britain half back Roger Millward or Saints hooker Graham Liptrot repeatedly had their jaws broken in deliberate attempts to take them out of the game.

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The dirty stuff has been cut out, with the all-seeing match review panel and video putting an end to that. But a smack in the head is a smack in the head whether it is deliberate high shot or one that has innocently risen up off the shoulder.

So with that in mind, can the laws be redrawn to punish every contact with the head with a sin-bin whether malicious or not?

I hear the howls, particularly as that could limit a classic man and ball tackle and would be a gift to the off-loader.

Maybe that would encourage going back to the basics players are first taught – the importance of a good low tackle and solid first contact. Purists look away, but maybe an increased and varied offload game may even be a better spectacle.

Secondly, let’s not make the mistake that head injuries are all caused by high shots. Plenty are still caused by a stray knee to the head when players get their head on the wrong side, or catch another bony part, and a significant number are from friendly fire.

Significantly, the blow that saw Chris Joynt seeing stars earlier in this piece was a product of Vila Matautia coming over the top and accidently clunking his skipper with his forearm.

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A couple of things arise from that – fatigue is a massive part of players making the wrong call in their technique but secondly, do we have too many bodies in at the tackle.

Rugby league tackles used to be a simple, with one low and the the other clamping the ball. Tackled player gets up and plays it.

Now each tackle is turned into a set piece ruck. Union have speeded theirs up while league has gone the other way, with the third and fourth men in holding, wresting, turning and then leaving one at a time – vital seconds to set the defence but utterly tedious to watch.

But should we check whether having so many bodies in the collision has contributed to more friendly fire and injuries. We do seem to have an awful lot of head checks – and not an equivalent number of cards or penalties for high shots so they are coming from somewhere.

It is a fact players get injured and plenty of past players are contorted with the joint ailments as a result of playing the greatest game from the age of 6 to 36; knees, hips, fingers and and elbows – you name it.

One past player creaked as he got out of his seat with the aid of the table in front of him and he was not even 40 – aspects of life we don’t see in players after they have been cheered down the tunnel that final time.

But head injuries are different – and for all that we as a game are much better than those primitive smelling salts and how man fingers days, there are still aspects of player welfare we can improve.

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I recall Steve Prescott describing how he felt “like a piece of meat” having seen his career finally cut short following a lengthy absence with a problematic broken knee-cap.

You see the point – players are the ones who make the sacrifices and in plenty of cases get the rewards of success in getting paid to be doing something every little kid at school has ever dreamt of doing.

But when those dreams turn to nightmares we have to really pause and check we are doing all we can.

We cannot strive to get things right on the science and the protocols around head knocks, and then on the other hand throw a Super League fixture list at the players that is basically Easter on steroids.

The players are rugby league’s biggest asset, the ones who make the game. And yet they seem to be the last people considered when it comes to formulating fixture plans, agreeing TV deals and scheduling internationals.

We have to break this crude model of more and more games as the only means of raising revenue, or accept that the consequence is instead breaking the players.