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Steve Thompson’s Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me is the most shocking thing I’ve seen on TV

TV review: Ex-England player’s documentary on brain damage and concussion shows why rugby as we know it is over

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Former rugby star Steve Thompson with a human brain at the Imperial College London brain bank for the BBC TV programme Head on: Rugby, Dementia and Me

Former rugby star Steve Thompson with a human brain at the Imperial College London brain bank for the BBC TV programme Head on: Rugby, Dementia and Me

Steve Thompson celebrates winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England, a feat he no longer remembers. Photo by Odd Andersen/Getty

Steve Thompson celebrates winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England, a feat he no longer remembers. Photo by Odd Andersen/Getty

The 2 Johnnies enjoy a milkshake in Texas. Photo by Hannah Devaney

The 2 Johnnies enjoy a milkshake in Texas. Photo by Hannah Devaney

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Former rugby star Steve Thompson with a human brain at the Imperial College London brain bank for the BBC TV programme Head on: Rugby, Dementia and Me

As a television viewer, I pride myself on not getting shocked. As a fan of Gogglebox, you don’t even have to search out the sex and violence for yourself — it is all provided for by the editing team. And that is how I ended up explaining to my mother why a woman was taking a picture up her skirt.

So, pretty hardbitten here. Not much surprises me. But Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me (BBC2) was the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen on television. In it, Steve Thompson explained how his career as a rugby player had left him with early onset dementia. He is 44.

Steve Thompson grew up in Northampton and he had a hard childhood. He found a family, of sorts, in rugby, where he could channel his anger and excel. He played for Northampton and in 2003 was in the England team that won the World Cup, taking his position as hooker in the middle of the front row of the scrum. He retired from rugby 11 years ago.

These days, he frequently forgets the names of his four children. He has lost his job as some sort of communications functionary because he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be communicating. Now he worries about what is going to happen to his family, and about the cost of long-term care, as he puts it, “later on”. The programme was filmed over the course of a year. Steve was an excellent interviewee, even when he lost his train of thought on camera. “Four years ago some of my most precious memories started disappearing,” he said.

He doesn’t remember attending the birth of his kids. He doesn’t remember being in Australia for the World Cup. He doesn’t remember meeting the queen when he received his MBE.

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Steve Thompson celebrates winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England, a feat he no longer remembers. Photo by Odd Andersen/Getty

Steve Thompson celebrates winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England, a feat he no longer remembers. Photo by Odd Andersen/Getty

Steve Thompson celebrates winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England, a feat he no longer remembers. Photo by Odd Andersen/Getty

But it was not this that shocked me. It wasn’t the scenes when he met a neurological pathologist who explained that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is caused by the thousands of concussions and sub-concussions rugby players experience. “One player in every match suffers a head injury,” said an MP in the House of Commons who had been part of a parliamentary inquiry into concussion in sport.

Steve walked down a corridor with the very much smaller doctor (pretty much everyone is smaller than him) and was very calm, even when looking at a brain in a tray. Referring to the concussions and sub-concussions, he said simply that rugby players can get “80,000 to 100,000 in our careers, with no rest in between”.

No, the shock set in when he started describing how he and what his wife describes as his “poorly head” had been treated by the people in charge of rugby. The brain damage happens “in the training, not in the games”, Steve said. Once professional rugby arrived on the scene, the players were encouraged to give up their day jobs and train all week. For the front-row players, this meant training and straining “on machines that don’t move”. Sometimes Steve would black out after training on the scrum machines, which look like steamrollers. But he would lie on the ground for a little while after he had blacked out and then he would go in for more training on the same scrum machines. This was the routine.

Meanwhile, players were getting fitter and faster and gaining muscle weight. “The noise that you’d hear of guys colliding was just unbelievable,” said Sam Peters, a rugby fan and journalist who started writing critically of this new regime.

Ten years ago, Peters was publishing articles with headlines like “Midweek games are madness”. “That was 10 years ago,” he said. “Unfortunately for rugby, the time bomb has gone off.”

There is no doubt that this scandal, and its attendant court cases both here and in the UK spell the end of rugby as we know it. After watching this documentary, I can only say the sooner the better. Too late for some of the cannon fodder: “I don’t want to be bitter,” said Steve. “I don’t want other people to go through this, because it’s sh**.”

Video of the Day

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The 2 Johnnies enjoy a milkshake in Texas. Photo by Hannah Devaney

The 2 Johnnies enjoy a milkshake in Texas. Photo by Hannah Devaney

The 2 Johnnies enjoy a milkshake in Texas. Photo by Hannah Devaney

Then there are The 2 Johnnies, fascinated with themselves in The 2 Johnnies Do America (RTÉ2, Mondays). They started in Mexico, looking, they said, for material for their radio show. They didn’t seem that curious about Mexico, a place in which it seemed, said one Johnny, “that nothing is organised except the crime”. I would have thought the same could be said of our dear homeland, but we’ll let that pass.

The Johnnies said they were nervous about getting over the border to the United States, blithely ignoring the fact that they are two white guys who are not going to have any problems, and that people have died trying to get over that same border.

To The 2 Johnnies, it was like getting into a nightclub, and they said as much. Even Jeremy Clarkson wouldn’t manage to be this blithe about other people’s history.

The 2 Johnnies Do America is basically Top Gear with smaller vehicles. Nothing notable happens. It’s a bit like watching someone else’s holiday video; and that in fact is exactly what it is. Only a scene of play-acting in a restaurant during a Dallas etiquette lesson was amusing. Otherwise, The 2 Johnnies are going to have to work a lot harder, for a long time. Ant and Dec they ain’t.


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