As Leigh Halfpenny tries to overcome the effects of concussion and resume playing, a growing number of players have been unable to return. This month it was Ben John and before that Dragons centre Adam Hughes was forced to retire. Peter Jackson of The Rugby Paper hears Hughes’ story.
Adam Hughes had his future planned out. Once his career as a professional rugby player had run its course, he would put his pilot’s licence to use and work for a commercial airline.
All that changed as a consequence of what happened at Franklin’s Gardens on Sunday March 22, 2015, during Exeter’s Anglo-Welsh Cup final against Saracens. The Chiefs’ Welsh centre took a blow that obliterated every fragment of his memory of a thrilling final.
“That was the start of the end,” he says. “I have no recollection whatsoever of the match. I don’t know what caused the damage. Sometimes with concussion it’s not so much contact with the head as the collision itself.
“The brain moves without head contact. It took months and months for me to recover. In my rehab I was stuck at the exercise stage. Whenever I’d exercise, the symptoms kept coming back – nausea, a general feeling of being unwell and memory loss.
“Short-term, that was really bad for quite a few months. During one of my recovery periods from a later concussion I’d studied for three months in preparation for an exam on a financial course. I found I couldn’t remember a thing and that left me no option but to start from scratch again.”
Hughes never played for Exeter again. He went home to Newport and rejoined the Dragons only to suffer a further concussion in a PRO14 match against Ulster in the opening weeks of last season and announced his retirement at the end of it, aged 27.
A few days ago another 27-year-old Welsh centre, Ben John formerly of the Ospreys, suffered the same fate. That coupled with the fatalities in France and renewed calls from the players’ union for pre-emptive action lends a relevance to Hughes’ case history.
Neurosurgeons found two major trauma scans on his brain. “The neurosurgeons were very good,” Hughes says. “They give you the hard facts based on the evidence and the hard facts were that I had some scarring on the brain from previous concussions.
“I had a MRI scan at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. I was in the scanner for one hour 35 minutes, flat on my back, not able to move a muscle. It was pretty horrendous but I could not have been in the hands of better people. They were brilliant.
“I was 27. You think you have at least five years left, five years in which to give it a go. The Dragons were under new ownership with a new coach but then common sense comes to the fore.
“You think about the evidence and come to a reasonable decision. They didn’t say, ‘stop playing’, but they did say, ‘this is not going to get any better’.
“Every concussion gets worse than the one before. It’s the snowball effect. My threshold level was reducing. I was almost running into people.
“I qualified as a pilot when I was 21 but obviously that’s all changed because of the concussion. Apart from that, rugby was all I’ve done all my life from the age of 16 and to stop doing it was tough.”
An U20 international who played at the 2010 Junior World Cup in a Wales back division alongside Dan Biggar, Scott Williams, Ashley Beck and Lloyd Williams, Hughes does not allow the concussion traumas to sour his view of the game.
“I think rugby is doing as much as it can to reduce the danger,” he says. “When it comes to prevention, we’re almost leading the way. We are so much more educated on the subject now than we were a few years ago.
“There’s always a danger that the negatives will be pushed to the fore instead of the positives. Clubs are now doing everything they can to ensure that the players are really well looked after.”
Hughes, an executive with the Newport-based Niche Sports specialising in financial advice for professional sports people, is still involved in the game, as a referee.
“You will never replace that feeling before a match, of running out onto the pitch with your mates, of the good times after matches,” he says. “I am trying to replace that through my refereeing. I find it incredibly interesting.
“There is so much more to the game from a referee’s perspective. It gives you a better understanding of their difficulties and maybe, as an ex-player, you get a little more respect.
“I’ve had a couple of cases of players who’ve taken blows to the head.
Another told me during a game that he wasn’t feeling right. In all cases I insist that they go off and stay off for the rest of the match and make a complete recovery.”
Like everyone else, Hughes can only hope that the highest profile current victim of concussion, Leigh Halfpenny, will be cleared to return at some stage during the Six Nations.
“Leigh is an incredibly brave player,’’ says Hughes. “We can only cross our fingers that he’s back before too long. You just don’t know…’’
Peter Jackson’s column appears courtesy of The Rugby Paper.