Morgan Tait

Morgan Tait is the NZ Herald's consumer affairs reporter.

Rugby death: Tears for 'gentle giant'

Rugby-mad teen dies after on-field clash.

Jordan Kemp was playing a senior reserves game when the injury occurred.
Jordan Kemp was playing a senior reserves game when the injury occurred.

A fatal rugby injury has devastated a New Zealand family, sent shockwaves through a tight-knit Northland community and re-emphasised risks associated with the national game.

Otamatea Hawks hooker Jordan Kemp, 17, died yesterday afternoon after a suspected head clash during a Whangarei club rugby game on Saturday.

He was airlifted to Auckland City Hospital where his large network of friends and family were keeping vigil and waiting for relatives - including his older brother Joseph, who has cerebral palsy, and maternal grandparents - to arrive from Brisbane.


Sisters Crishla and Michaela.

They did not make it in time to say goodbye.

Jordan, the triplet brother of Crishla and Michaela and son of Tania Cook and Aaron Kemp, was playing in the senior reserves game against Old Boys Marist when the injury occurred about 15 minutes before the final whistle.

Jordan's aunt Karina Cook said 10 relatives from Brisbane were due to arrive in Auckland shortly before midnight last night and planned to head straight to the hospital.

"They were turning the machines off just before midnight so the grandparents from here can see him before they switch them off."

But Jordan died at 3.45pm, his sister Crishla announced in an emotional social media statement.

"The moment god took you from me ... is the moment he took a part of me too," she said. "In the end your with us in sprit my bro I know you'll always be watching over us and I love you soooooo much you have no idea my bro [sic]."

Ms Cook said the family was left "in pain and continuous tears". It was especially difficult for Crishla, who was at the game and travelled with her brother to hospital.

"She is broken ... she doesn't want to leave her brother. They are not in the right frame of mind, which is understandable because they came into this world as three."

Her nephew was popular and loved playing rugby, she said.

"It's just his rugby, rugby and being with his siblings. He's a very humble boy, gentle, kind-hearted - a gentle giant."

Jordan lived in Maungaturoto and had attended Auckland Grammar, where he played for the First XV.

It was understood he had recently left school to start working.

Northland Rugby Union chief executive Jeremy Parkinson said representatives of the club had been with the family all day, and had offered counselling to them as well as team members and members of the opposing team.

"[On Saturday] afternoon there was a young, fit 17-year-old playing rugby and today he is not with us ... that's hugely tragic."

He said Jordan was from a well-known rugby family - his grandfather, Russell Kemp, is a prominent coach - and had "a passion for life and for rugby".

Otamatea club president Kevin Robinson said it was unclear how the clash happened, but he believed it was in "general play", not from a tackle or scrum.

The teen fell down, but made it to his feet before "staggering around" and falling over again, he said.

Mr Parkinson said the club had been working hard to address the issue of head injuries, and had been working with Northland MP Mike Sabin and his son Darryl who lives with the ongoing complications of a rugby accident in 2009.

In February, Northland Rugby implemented a "blue-card" system, giving referees the ability to order concussed players from the field for a minimum of three weeks.

They are required to consult a doctor before returning to play.

Jordan had been blue-carded at the start of the season, had four weeks off and had been cleared five weeks ago.

"We believe as a province we are across head injuries and have worked hard to introduce our own measures ... and fully support the New Zealand Rugby Union's practices," Mr Parkinson said.

Concussion expert Dr Rosamund Hill said there was a growing awareness around the risks associated with concussions.

"It does make people aware that there are risks in playing contact sport, and particularly rugby.

"In the past it has been sort of ignored a bit and overlooked a bit so I think there is definitely a growing awareness that it is a serious problem and it needs to be looked at very carefully."

New Zealand Rugby general manager Neil Sorensen said the incident would be investigated.

"No doubt, the appropriate authorities and we ourselves will investigate what happened," he said.

"In the meantime, our focus is on ensuring Jordan's whanau and the Northland Rugby community have all the support they need as they come to grips with this."

Jordan's accident comes nearly a year after Aucklander Willie Halaifonua, a 27-year-old Takapuna lock, died after receiving a head injury while playing club rugby.

Last month, Kiwis and England star Shontayne Hape revealed he was forced into retirement and left fearing for his mental health after suffering repetitive head trauma during his rugby and league career.

Hape played 14 league tests for the Kiwis and 13 rugby tests for England between 2004 and 2012 and said he suffered more than 20 concussions during his career, resulting in constant migraines, sensitivity to light and sound, irritability, memory loss and depression.

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