11 Nov 2021

The rugby legacy no player wants

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 11 November 2021
Tonga have 36 players available to face England at Twickenham.

Brutal training is the norm for professional rugby players.  Photo: Lucas Scherrer Production/Tonga Rugby

Dylan Cleaver has been writing stories about the links between rugby and brain damage for years now.

But his latest revelation – that former All Black Carl Hayman, aged just 41, has early onset dementia – has rocked the rugby world.

Hayman, once thought to have been the highest paid rugby player in the world and one of the game’s best tighthead props, has paid dearly for his professional life. Now he is joining a lawsuit against World Rugby, and the Welsh, Scottish and English unions being prepared on behalf of 150 former professional rugby players, nine of them claimants.

Most of the claimants are in their early 40s, their careers coinciding with the game going professional. Instead of part-time training, players went through brutal regimes aimed at making them stronger, faster and bigger. They were also playing many more games at higher intensity.

“That era was probably the perfect storm for a situation when brain health was compromised,” says Cleaver.

Today on The Detail he tells Emile Donovan how Hayman’s diagnosis was a breakthrough revelation to him after years of constant headaches and violent tendencies. He is suspected to be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which disproportionately affects contact sport players, including former NFL players and boxers. And rugby players, who are on the receiving end of thousands of tackles and clashes over the course of a sporting career.

The class action Hayman has joined is aimed at improving safety in the sport. New Zealand Rugby hasn’t been named – and because of our ACC system will probably not be. But Hayman played in Europe, in a post-All Blacks career that wasn’t covered in glory – in fact, his whole life spiralled and he ended up in jail. He thought he was going mad.

Cleaver says eventually he was contacted by those who had an idea of what he might be going through, and after an initial refusal to do anything about it he came to a point where he needed answers.

“It was a real relief for Carl,” he says. “He could finally understand what was happening in that he wasn’t going mad. He had a brain condition.”

The evidence that CTE is caused by repetitive head knocks – not just the odd concussion – has been building.

“It seems more and more likely that it’s repetitive head injuries,” says Cleaver. “In fact there are studies that seem to have actually proved the link beyond correlation, to something that more equates causation. But there is still debate within the community I guess that we have to acknowledge. There could be other factors, as well as head injuries, there could be societal factors, there could be genetic factors.”

There’s been some backlash against these players, says Cleaver, with people saying they knew what they’d signed up for and they were well paid for it.

But “these guys did not sign up for brain disease,” he says. “And it’s about time we talked dispassionately about it … if we want rugby to flourish.”

Today’s podcast does contain references to suicide, so please be aware before listening.

In tomorrow's podcast we'll be looking at concussion and women's sports. 


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