Older rugby fans will fondly remember Neil Wolfe, a nimble and sparkling first five-eighth for the All Blacks in 1961. Wolfe, who has featured in our series on dementia this week, remembers waking up in the dressing room at half time in his debut test, after a blow to the head in a tackle 20 minutes into the match. These days it seems he struggles to remember much from one day to the next. "I have a bit of dementia now," he told our sports writer, Dylan Cleaver, who found Wolfe is one of five members of the Taranaki team of that 1964 era who have been diagnosed with dementia. Compare that with a national death rate of 19 cases in 100,000 people. Cleaver's excellent series should be jolting the minds of all those who care about our national game. NZRU chief executive Steve Tew says it is "taking this matter very seriously [and] there have been some significant developments about how we deal with concussion". So it should.
Year by year, the ACC has been dealing with an increasing number of claims for brain injuries blamed on rugby. Nobody who follows the game will be surprised. Players in the professional era - right down to school-age level - are bigger and fitter than they used to be, and the game is faster. The tackle has become more of a full-body collision, often at such a pace that it is often a wonder players can continue. The "big hits" have become a thrilling feature of the spectacle, but frightening too for players' health, both immediately and later in life.
Rugby is getting more vigorous as the world gets more sensitive to physical risks. A call in Britain recently for the tackle to be removed from school rugby would have sent a chill down many a New Zealand spine. Rugby without the tackle would not be the same game. It is a body contact sport, like league and American football. A study in America in 2009 found NFL players were 19 times more likely to suffer early-onset Alzheimer's than the general population.
Rugby has paid more attention to head injuries and concussion in recent years and the players' association needs no convincing of the long-term risks. "We don't need a scientist or anyone to tell us that," said the association head, Rob Nichol. "We are pushing as hard as we can to make sure we are in the forefront globally in concussion management." Players are sent from the field after visible head collisions and have to pass a cognitive test within 10 minutes to return to the field. If concussion is found they cannot return and cannot play until tests show they have recovered, which may be much longer than the three-week stand-down that used to apply.
The game has come a long way from Neil Wolfe's day when, approaching captain Wilson Whineray and asking, "What am I doing here?" he was allowed to run out for the second half. Wolfe has no regrets. Injuries that develop later in life are the price many players accept for the pleasure, friendships and success the game has given them. But more needs to be done to prevent brain damage.
Visible head collisions are not the only way brain injuries can occur. Concussion testing should perhaps be routine for all players. Players could test themselves after every game. They should be alerted to the risks later in life. And if they take a knock, they - or those around them - should use their heads.