Midweek fixture with Dylan Cleaver: This is not an anti-rugby story

Neil Wolfe, dementia sufferer and All Black, at his home in New Plymouth. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Neil Wolfe, dementia sufferer and All Black, at his home in New Plymouth. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Over the past few months I have been working on a project looking closely at the lives of four of the heroes of the 1964 Taranaki Ranfurly Shield team.

It would be wrong to call it a labour of love because the subject material - namely, dementia and its links to concussion - does not allow for that particular emoji, but it's a story that I've become engrossed in.

The reaction from those who know the families has been great. It was no small matter for them to go public with their struggles. I'll be forever grateful to them for allowing me to tell their story.

As always, there's the 'fringe' who inhabit social media who either choose to miss the point or don't have the necessary critical faculty to seek the point.

For the benefit of those who genuinely want a greater understanding of what is happening, allow me to make clear a few points.

• This is not an anti-rugby story. Far from it. Listen to Neil Wolfe talking. He loves rugby and wouldn't have changed a thing about his life (except, perhaps, to have rested longer after concussion and even those are my words, not his). No one is suggesting, as others have in recent weeks, that we ban tackling at schools or any other dramatic rules interventions.

• Rugby is not the only sport that faces this issue but it is our national sport and it does get by far and away the most coverage and sponsorship dollars, so why shouldn't we ask it to be a leader in this space too?

• The concussion protocols are light years more effective now and New Zealand Rugby is a leader in the field. Well done. That doesn't alter the fact that we've become smart about it only in the past decade and we have potentially more than 40 years of tragic stories to tell.

• There is no conclusive medical link between rugby injuries and Alzheimer's disease. Dr Jonathan Simcock, a retired neurologist, made this point clear. We do not know why some people get Alzheimer's and some don't. However, the families that are suffering are perfectly entitled to inquire, investigate and reach their own conclusions, whether they're based in scientific evidence or not. They've earned that right.

• It could be a fluke that five players in a single team are suffering dementia. One of the most renowned biostaticians in the world, Thomas Lumley, suggests "the chance is low enough to reinforce existing concerns about the effects of concussion in rugby". Even so, the chances of it being a "mathematical cluster" cannot be dismissed.

• The entire premise of a link between head injuries and dementia is not predicated on the plight of a single team. It was my choice to do it this way because it carried a powerful human interest element. Look at the stories in the rest of this series and the work of people like the BBC's John Beattie to get a fuller picture.

This is not the end. Over the past few days I have received emails from others whose families are suffering. Some of the names will be instantly recognisable.

It is gratifying that a conversation, at the very least, has been started.

These are not men and they are not families that will ask for help. Even if it was offered the chances are they would turn it down. But if this problem magnifies to the extent that some fear it will, then it's not going to be so easy to dismiss the issue, as one kindly reader did, as "PC nonsense".

GIVE 'EM A TASTE OF KIWI ...

There is a case for playing this every time there is a Warriors-Storm match on the horizon. You'll never get sick of it. "Put the ball down son!"

SPORTS SHAREMARKET

I'm buying... Wayne Smith's negotiator
It's pretty simple when you've got the biggest brain in rugby. Make a few noises about needing some time out or are looking for fresh challenges, wait for NZ Rugby envoy to arrive on your doorstep with a basket of Easter Eggs and an improved contract. Sometimes it's good to know we live in Wayne's World. Party time. Excellent.

I'm selling... The World T20
A quick apology to the kids for the obscure early-90s pop culture reference above. And apologise (terrible segue, I know) is what the ICC should be doing to the associate members after the farcical start to the World T20. Way to motivate countries to get better guys. Give them an unattractive qualifying tournament and wave them home in the rain. Said it once and I'll say it again: while every sport in the world wants to expand and attract new devotees, the ICC is determined to turn cricket into a boring Old Boys network. Wake up fools.

I'M READING ...
A fascinating insight into the world of sports gambling. I could use more of this, as you can see by the next segment.

MY LAST $10
Failure is crippling me. After a 1-2 multi record, I'm dialling it back this week.
Last week: The Blues at home against the Canes, the Highlanders over the Lions and Scotland over France. The latter two came in and the Blues probably should have, but as my gambling adviser Hollow Steveaway is fond of saying: "You don't just miss the bus do you?"
This week: England to beat West Indies at the World T20. That outlay should gross $17.50.
Total spent: $70 Total collected: $39.35

- NZ Herald

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