Rugby and dementia: All Black Icon reveals dementia battle

By Dylan Cleaver

An iconic All Black has revealed he has dementia. Waka Nathan, a flanker for the All Blacks in their golden era in the 1960s, has stage two Alzheimer's disease.

With the support of his family, he has decided to make his plight public in the hope it will highlight the potential long-term effects of rugby injuries.

Nathan, 75, had a relatively short All Black career by today's standards, playing 14 tests and 37 matches between 1962 and 1967. He was prone to serious injury, having his jaw broken twice and snapping his Achilles tendon, but when he was on the field his elegant, athletic style redefined the role of the openside flanker.

Nathan is one of four in the 1967 All Black touring squad to Canada, Britain and France known to be suffering, or have suffered, dementia.

The others are former National MP Tony Steel, who is in permanent care in Hamilton, Mac Herewini, who died after a series of strokes in 2014, and Wellington flanker Graham Williams, who played the tests on that 1967 tour after Nathan broke his jaw against Midlands, London and Home Counties.

Williams is now living with frontal lobe dementia and motor neurone disease.

"It is heartbreaking. It is terribly, terribly sad," said Steel's wife, Raewyn. The stories are a continuation of the New Zealand Herald investigation into the links between concussion suffered in rugby and dementia.

On Monday we highlighted the plight of the 1964 Taranaki Ranfurly Shield team, where five players have either died with or are suffering from dementia conditions.

Nathan and his wife Janis read the story in the library of the East Auckland retirement village they moved into last year. It struck a chord.

"I played with [Neil] Wolfey and Ross Brown. Wonderful little players. Wonderful men," he says.

New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew on Wednesday acknowledged the issue, saying the national body's obligation was to protect the current generation of players.

"It is a complicated issue and even the highly skilled and trained medical professionals cannot give you a definitive answer on a whole load of really important questions," Tew said.

"Right now, our responsibility is the current game and making sure we do the right thing for the players who are playing now."

The ACC has had a sharp rise in claims for rugby concussions - from 1480 in 2010 to 2413 last year - and is bracing itself for its first dementia claim.

"It is quite likely that with the growing suite of international medical literature and greater understanding of causation, that we will in the future," said spokeswoman Stephanie Melville.

And in the United States, a momentous step was taken this week when the NFL's top health and safety officer acknowledged the link between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Jeff Miller was asked during a roundtable discussion on concussion at the House of Representatives whether the link between neurodegenerative diseases, like CTE and dementia, and American football had been established.

"The answer to that question is certainly yes," Miller said.

- NZ Herald

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