Almost two years ago, on August 23, 2020, I received an email from a London-based law firm which was putting together a legal action on behalf of former rugby players.
“We have over 70 former players, including 10 from Ireland, showing symptoms suggesting neurological complications, such as migraines, loss of memory, insomnia, depression and an inability to concentrate,” wrote the solicitor from Ryla nds. “Once we go public, we believe we will be looking at an epidemic.”
Now they claim to have over 200 former rugby union players and a group of 70 ex-rugby league players ready to take legal action for injuries suffered. I had a chat on the phone at the time, out of politeness, but I am not part of this or any other legal action.
When I retired in 2010 I wrote a book, Blue Blood. It was part autobiography, part diary. Leinster had won their first Heineken Cup in 2009 and the publisher felt there would be interest in the season when we tried to retain it. Alan Quinlan was also engaged to write a similar book, Red Blood, a combination of his life story and that Munster season. Such was the interest in the Leinster-Munster rivalry the marketing people felt they should be sold side-by-side in the bookshops.
In my last season as a player, my susceptibility to concussion increased massively. The previous season I had noticed that it was taking less contact to give me a blinding migraine or dizziness but it wasn’t something I ever considered would make me miss a match, or even a training session. Back then, there was still a bit of an old school attitude in the dressing room to concussion and it was rarely seen as a serious injury among us players.
I had presumed a good off-season would be sufficient for a full recovery and to be honest, I was more concerned with two knees that were making it incredibly difficult to run, and most of my training was adapted to try and compensate for the pain.
Unfortunately, during my last season, my ability to play or sometimes train without concussion-like sensations was next to non-existent. Even warming up and hitting a tackle bag was often giving me a blinding headache — or I would temporarily lose my balance, or have a seeing-the-stars like feeling. My tolerance for contact was so low that it felt as though I could have been concussed in a pillow fight. I think I got around 25 concussions in that last season. The vast majority of these I kept to myself and didn’t declare to our team doctor, which was naïve and stupid of me. With hindsight I was lucky I lost my place as first choice hooker and I went from having started 19 matches the previous two seasons to just eight in my last.
This protected me to a certain extent, as when you are a replacement you play fewer minutes on a Saturday and you also get fewer reps during the week. When you combine that with my dodgy knees, I was able to avoid a lot more contact than normal.
Something that was hard to avoid was the ‘live scrums’ we would do at training once a week. Back then there was a huge focus on the ‘hit’ in the scrum. Both packs would be like coiled springs and the mantra was hit 80 per cent, push 20 per cent, so you tried to win that race across an imaginary line to dominate your opponent on the engagement. The force through my neck and shoulders was immense. I would pop some pain killers on the walk to the pitch and know that first hit would send a pain so sharp into the back of my head that I was just trying to get them finished and hope it was one of those migraines that didn’t hang around for long.
That was the problem with the migraines I got. There was no clear pattern, some could be gone in an hour, others stayed for a few days. There was also the dizziness I sometimes got with a bang. The problem was that the more concussions I got, the less spooked or worried I was by them. I knew I just needed to buy myself time. In a match, a lost contact lense (popped out by me), faking being winded, or a non-existent shoulder injury were all used to get the physio onto the field to buy myself enough time to get my balance back and play on. I know ... madness ... a stupid way to behave.
When the final draft for the book came back it really hit home how often I was getting these concussions and how dangerous it was. I was tempted to take this information out of the book but having seen the studies coming from the NFL at the time, I decided to leave it in and join Acquired Brain Injury Ireland as an ambassador. I tried to create more awareness among rugby players in particular to the potential long-term side effects of brain injury.
I was not offered a new contract because my body was shot and that was affecting my ability to train and play. I had a great career in terms of longevity and didn’t lodge an insurance claim because my physical problems were more a result of wear and tear than a single career-ending injury.
In relation to my concussions, I have had no sign of any lasting brain damage since I retired. I know that I, along with other current or former players, can’t predict the future, but I look back on my playing days with fondness.
Some of the stories from the likes of former Welsh captain Ryan Jones, England World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson and ex-All Blacks tighthead Carl Hayman are harrowing. They have all been diagnosed with early onset dementia and I have massive sympathy for them.
The news that the Irish players who are part of this group will be issuing legal proceedings against the IRFU has really brought it home to me that it isn’t just players that I played against, but most probably players that I played with who are suffering.
I don’t know who these Irish players that are taking the case are and I would imagine that the majority have been suffering in relative silence for years, with probably only close friends and family aware of their issues. There is still a stigma about brain injury and I can only imagine how frightening it is for everyone involved. Every time I hear about another player I do worry about my own brain health to be honest, but I am good at the moment and so I try not to think about it and keep looking forward.
I also feel for the governing bodies because they are running a game that many of us love deeply. The contact element of the game is at its core and I feel the IRFU have done a lot to help educate players, coaches and parents at all levels of the dangers of concussion. I currently coach in both the domestic and schools game in Ireland and I feel the protocols are very strictly adhered to. From a World Rugby point of view, there has been a big push to try and reduce contact with the head and we are in the messy middle phase where some games may be affected by red or yellow cards.
This is when World Rugby needs to hold the line. Eventually, players’ habits and actions will change, but there can be no let-up until they do.
The decision to use a 20-minute red card in the Rugby Championship is, for me, a backward step and doesn’t show that player safety is at the forefront. The stats show us that comparing red cards in last year’s Super Rugby competition, which trialled this, with the URC, where red was red, the red cards in Super Rugby were over twice as frequent. Surely we need to have fewer red cards for foul play rather than more?
World Rugby also recently modified the return-to-play protocols to make it harder for players who have a history of concussion, or a confirmed serious concussion, to make it back within seven days, which I believe is a positive step.
The governing bodies can claim a little ignorance, as I do, for brain injuries from the early stages of professional rugby but if they don’t show real intent now they will only have themselves to blame for what will come for this and future generations of players.