Former Parramatta Eels forward Brett Horsnell in landmark legal case against club

Final season: Brett Horsnell, in Parramatta colours, in a 1998 clash with North Queensland. Photo: NRL Photos
Final season: Brett Horsnell, in Parramatta colours, in a 1998 clash with North Queensland. Photo: NRL Photos

Former Parramatta forward Brett Horsnell is taking legal action against the club over mental health issues he has suffered following his rugby league career.

The landmark case, which is scheduled to begin in the Supreme Court this month, has the potential to have huge ramifications for Australian sport and could result in more actions being taken against sporting clubs and bodies.

The action comes just months after Fairfax Media revealed former NSW State of Origin winger James McManus was taking legal action against Newcastle over the club's handling of his concussions.

Horsnell made 154 first-grade appearances during a distinguished career for the Gold Coast Giants, South Queensland Crushers and the Eels. He played for the blue and golds for two years, including his final season of professional football in 1998. The Giants and Crushers have long since disappeared from the rugby league landscape, leaving the Eels as the only body left for him to sue after suffering a series of health problems in post-football life.

Horsnell's case against the Parramatta District Rugby League Club is set for a directions hearing on May 22, although it's understood the matter could be refiled to reflect the defendant as the Parramatta National Rugby League Club.

Suing Parramatta: Brett Horsnell has endured some difficult times since his retirement from rugby league.

Suing Parramatta: Brett Horsnell has endured some difficult times since his retirement from rugby league.

"The matter is currently being handled by our lawyers, there is nothing else I can say," said Parramatta Eels CEO Bernie Gurr.

Fairfax Media contacted Horsnell and his legal firm, which declined to comment.

The case is sure to be closely scrutinised by the legal and sporting fraternities and could prompt other footballers to consider their legal options if Horsnell was successful.

The rugby league community has been rallying around Horsnell since his playing career. Some of the game's biggest names, including Wally Lewis, Allan Langer, Trevor Gillmeister, Dale Shearer, Ben Ikin and Chris Close, made themselves available for the "One More Time For A Mate" charity game in 2004 after Horsnell was diagnosed with cancer. He was also a special guest at a Gold Coast Titans old boys day last year where he reconnected with many of his former teammates.

In an interview with nrl.com last year, Horsnell –  the first Queenslander to captain the Australian Schoolboys team – gave an insight into how tough he was doing it in retirement.

"I thought about taking my own life and it took a friend of mine to see my Men of League keyring and asked me what it was. I explained it to them and she helped me fill out the form," Horsnell told the official NRL website last year.

"I didn't want to, it went against everything that a man thinks of himself, but it saved my life.

"I was too proud [to ask for help], I felt embarrassed but it was the best thing I ever did.

"I've been struggling for several years with the injury and I'm on a disability pension now for my back and there are other medical issues that we're working through at the moment that the Men of League have funded.

"Players these days are earning plenty of money but you just never know what life is going to throw at you.

"Things come along that you just don't expect and if you need help, ask for it."

Horsnell has had a run of bad luck stemming from his playing days. A back injury prevented him playing on for Bradford in England in 1999, prompting him to take on a captain-coach role for Runaway Bay while working behind a bar. A late offer came in to have one final season for the Gold Coast Chargers, but the club folded just as he was negotiating a six-figure deal. Had he done so, he would have been entitled to the full payout other contracted players received.

He was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2004 and has undergone several back surgeries, including one that the Men of League has funded to the tune of $80,000. The foundation has also funded other medical expenses, including an eye operation, and Horsnell has also undergone tests to determine if he has multiple sclerosis.