Kevin McLaughlin: I'm thankful I stopped playing... I've no mood swings or memory loss
Published 17/12/2015 | 02:30
It was only four months ago that Kevin McLaughlin was named Leinster captain and although he still feels an element of 'guilt' at how he was forced to retire early, he now has a greater appreciation for the little things in life.
This Christmas he'll get the chance to enjoy a beer with friends without having to worry about the daily grind of rugby and although he would rather be preparing for a festive inter-provincial derby, his health comes first.
Back in September, just two days after his 31st birthday, the former Leinster back-row was forced to call time on his career due to concussion.
The news came as a shock to the rugby community but McLaughlin was educated enough to know that he had suffered one too many knocks to the head and that another one could well have been fatal.
"I have absolutely no symptoms day-to-day," he explains with a heavy sigh of relief.
"I'm really, really lucky and I'm so thankful to Leinster for that because I read stories about people who can't leave a dark room because light is too sore for them and are going through mood swings and forgetting stuff day-to-day that they shouldn't be forgetting.
"I look at myself and I don't have any issues like that. The only issue that pertains with me is contact. If I take contact, I feel woozy and that's not right. That's why I stopped. But I'm thankful I stopped when I did."
McLaughlin has remained involved with the Leinster set-up since retiring and last week against Toulon made an inspirational speech in the dressing room.
Come January, he'll begin a new job that will allow him to cut ties with the province that has given him so much over the years but he will continue to actively highlight the dangers surrounding concussion.
The issue is rampant in the current game and, in the northern hemisphere especially, it shows no signs of letting up. McLaughlin firmly believes that it won't begin to get better until players become more honest with themselves.
"I'm certainly looking at some of the collisions and going, 'Ow', because I know that I can't cope with them anymore," the two-time Heineken Cup winner admits.
"My job now is to create awareness of the symptoms that I went through. So any young guy or person going through them now can read them and say, 'ok, I'm going through something similar and I need to be honest with myself and I need to tell somebody'. Players need to realise that they're putting their long-term health in danger if they do.
"I kind of feel there's an onus on me to create that awareness out there now. As someone who's been through it and wasn't fully honest with themselves and the coaching staff for a period of time and then opened up and made the right decision.
"I want to make sure that's the right thing to do because the rugby environment is a macho environment. You get a calf tear and you get an MRI and it's clear you're injured.
"But a brain injury is very easy to hide a lot of the time. It's very easy to say you're fine. The only way we can prevent concussion becoming a big issue is through player honesty.
"There's no other way of doing it, so we have to create a culture where it's the norm for the player to be honest with themselves firstly and then be honest with the coaching staff about what they're going through from a concussion point of view.
"In my view that's the only way we can deal with this concussion issue."
On the face of it, McLaughlin's solution would seem obvious enough but, sadly, the reality of the situation is that the sport is still some way from reaching that point.
"I see huge movement in the right direction. I see guys now taking themselves off the pitch which I never would have seen before," McLaughlin says.
"I see guys putting their hands up and saying, 'I don't feel right for this weekend', which I never would have seen before. Especially when it's coming from some of the leadership figures, some of the older guys.
"Because you've got the academy guys looking at them now and saying, 'ok, so if I get a bang in the head or have a headache on the week of the game, I know I'm not right to play'.
"That's now socially acceptable in this club. So now having a head injury is as important or is as big an issue as having a knee injury.
"The message I'm trying to get across is that it doesn't matter how well educated players are, if they're not honest with themselves about their symptoms and they're not honest to the coaches.
"I don't get worried. I look at the guys in Leinster and I know we have the right culture in place.
"I know the doctors have their heads in the right space so I don't get worried about that.
"The wider game? Do I get worried? At times I think, yeah. I think until it becomes the cultural norm in rugby to take concussion as seriously as a knee ligament injury, I would be slightly concerned."
McLaughlin will always miss the daily grind of rugby and while he continues to highlight the issues surrounding concussion, he is simply relieved that he is in a healthy enough state to do so. Leinster v Toulon is live on Sky Sports 3 on Saturday from 5pm. The fixture is part of a bumper line-up this festive season which includes European rugby, Premier League football and darts