If you didn’t see BBC Two’s harrowing documentary on Steve Thompson’s battle with dementia this week, make the effort to watch it.
I wrote about the former England front row in these pages two years ago and was already familiar with his story. It’s one thing reading words on a page or watching a two-minute interview for television, but it hits very differently when you get an up-close view of a guy in his early 40s struggling with basic elements of day-to-day life.
Forgetting the names of his children as he makes them breakfast; trailing off mid-sentence and not remembering what he was saying; talking about when - not if - he will end up in full-time care; and how he sees such little value in what he can offer those around him that he questions whether his life is worth living.
Seeing him at work with a local water company was particularly unnerving. He spoke over footage of him pumping water in and out of drains ‘to pay the bills’, outlining how it was one of the only things he could still manage to do effectively. He could no longer turn up and contribute at meetings, because he could never remember what he was supposed to report back.
There is nothing wrong with pumping water for a living but when it’s the full extent of what a World Cup winner and Lions tourist with 76 international caps and a 13-year career behind him can manage, it’s sad to see. Particularly when Thompson essentially said he only had the job because the company was looking after him.
It’s hard to rattle me but I watched the entire programme with a pained look on my face. It scared the shit out of me. Certain stories of Thompson's, like when he left his car running for three hours on the side of the road while he was fishing nearby, made me think.
Little incidents that I previously laughed off have suddenly looked more sinister.
I remember being 25 and living in an apartment complex in Castletroy, Limerick. I came home from training one day and parked my car as normal, got my gear bag out of the back seat and headed upstairs. Ten minutes later I got a phone call off one of the managers, who I knew well.
“Eh, are you at home, Duncan?” he asked.
I replied that I was.
“What’s going on with your car?”
I looked out the window and saw that I had left two of the four car doors wide open, had left the key in the ignition and the handbrake down. The car had rolled 20 metres backwards and came to a stop across two spaces at the other end of the car park. Miraculously, it managed to avoid any other vehicles on the way to its final resting pace.
I started roaring laughing, thinking this was hilarious. And it was. I made my apologies, moved the car and thought nothing more of it. That’s the kind of thing I look at now and ask, did I do that because I got a smack in the head that day? There have been other things; I’ve left the car running, keys in the ignition, and so on. Things that any normal person would write off as clumsiness, and that’s probably all it is.
Around the same time as that incident, I noticed I was having a harder time remembering people’s names and faces after I met them for the first time. I realise it isn’t possible to remember everyone you meet but it’s always something I found easy. It was becoming more and more difficult and I was getting a bit worried. The medical staff at Munster were brilliant. They sent me for a brain MRI and up to Dublin to see a neurologist.
My scan showed some ‘white matter foci’ on the brain. These are small lesions that show up in many scans. The jury is out on whether they have any clinical significance but they are so prevalent among the general population that they are usually considered harmless. I did some neuropsychological tests to examine my memory and got good results. The neurologist was happy that nothing was wrong.
Unfortunately, what he could not tell me was whether the white matter foci was caused by rugby or something else. He said it could be, but there was no way of knowing. Being a hooker, I asked if repeated bangs to the neck area in a scrum could cause it and he said it couldn’t be ruled out.
I don’t think my generation can claim we were oblivious to the risks of concussion in the way that Steve Thompson’s era clearly was. But the stubborn streak that every elite athlete needs to succeed is as prevalent today as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Regrettably, that can have an impact on whether we make the right or wrong decision to protect our health.
I would estimate I had eight or nine concussions over the course of a decade but I was never knocked out cold. I left the field with a concussion twice. There were plenty of times where, had I followed the advice to the letter, I should have removed myself but did not. Not many players would voluntarily leave the field if they could still run in a straight line and weren’t dragged off kicking and screaming.
My second last game in a Munster jersey was for Munster ‘A’, away to Nottingham in the British & Irish Cup. The wheels were in motion for my move to France and I thought this might be my last run out with my pals. We were chasing the game and I came on with 20 minutes to go. In my first involvement, I shot out of the line and got the angle of my tackle wrong. I took a knee to the head and fell, arms by my side and almost in slow motion, onto my back.
We laughed about it in the review the following week, and for good reason. I looked like a big tree that had been chopped down. “It’s like you’re falling into a coffin!” was my favourite take from one of the lads. As funny as it was, I was definitely concussed. I got to my knees for a few seconds, then to my feet and through blurred vision thought, “I need to get through the next 60 seconds and I’ll be fine”.
The physio was straight over to me, asking me to take a knee. This was likely to be my last run out in a red jersey and I had just come on, so I told him to f**k off and get away from me, and that I was fine. There was nothing else he could really do at that point. This was before referees could send players for HIAs themselves. To be honest, I had done a good job of hiding it, so very few people noticed until we watched the video the following week.
With the power of these decisions being removed from players over the years, this kind of thing happens less and less, but we would be foolish to think it has disappeared. Players are stubborn, particularly when there is a result, contract or opportunity to impress on the line.
I don’t have early onset dementia. I feel perfectly fine and live a perfectly normal life. The same can be said for nearly all current and ex-pros of my age. In ten years’ time, on the balance of probability, that could change for an unfortunate few.
I’m sure they, like Steve Thompson, Alix Popham, Ryan Jones and others, will continue to feel fine. Until one day, they don’t.