Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby League: Lance Hohaia's nightmare head knocks

The former Warrior is speaking out on his career-ending concussions to try to help stop others going through the same thing, writes Michael Burgess.

Lance Hohaia still struggles to talk about the events of October 11, 2014. It's not just that the memories are painful - the memories are mostly gone. Hohaia has almost no recollection of the six seconds of brutality that was the beginning of the end of his league career.

He played 185 games for the Warriors, including both the club's grand finals in 2002 and 2011 - the only player to do so - before transferring to St Helens in 2012.

In the 2014 Super League grand final, Wigan prop Ben Flower king hit Hohaia to the ground, knocking him senseless. Flower then punched the already concussed Hohaia in the face in one of the most sickening incidents seen on a league field.

That was the start of a traumatic six months for the 29-test Kiwi, that ended with Hohaia retiring.

Faced with ongoing serious symptoms, including memory loss and headaches that would last hours, if not days, Hohaia said he wanted an extended break.

He claimed the club insisted he take medication and play, which eventually led to him walking away from a lucrative contract.

Until now, Hohaia hasn't talked about the end of his decorated career. He's starting a new life in the United States with his young family, and has taken time to recover physically and emotionally.

"I haven't spoken about it on purpose," says Hohaia. "I wanted to get to a place where I am content and could put it to bed. Obviously the broader subject of concussion is very topical now and there is not enough done to protect athletes around head injuries so if I can help - that's my goal."

Hohaia's nightmare began at the 'Theatre of Dreams'. In the final match of the 2014 season, Hohaia lined up for St Helens against Wigan at Old Trafford.

But his involvement lasted barely two minutes, knocked senseless after Flower's action. Even now, the YouTube footage is harrowing to watch and Flower was banned for six months, the longest suspension in Super League history.

"I've got almost zero memories of that game," says Hohaia. "I don't remember driving to the ground, the warm up, being in the changing rooms."

A few days later, Hohaia and his family went on a two-week holiday in Europe, but he said he barely left his hotel room.

"I had awful headaches, lasting two or three days at a time. My head was pounding and I was anxious about why I was feeling that way."

Having already broken his nose six times that season, Flower's second punch had cracked it again. Hohaia was also highly sensitive to light and suffered from sleeplessness and memory loss, he said.

"I was in a lot of pain and my wife was very concerned," says Hohaia. "Apparently I was repeating myself and forgetting things she told me, which was pretty unlike me."

Three weeks later, Hohaia was due back at pre-season training, he said.

Lance Hohaia's career was never the same after being punched by Ben Flower.
Lance Hohaia's career was never the same after being punched by Ben Flower.

"I didn't want to go back but men being men, sometimes we suck it up. It was my job. I was still having headaches, trouble sleeping and anxiety but I thought it would resolve itself in time."

Hohaia returned to action in round two against Salford. He was concussed again but played on.

"I was knocked out in a tackle but passed the on-field concussion test," says Hohaia. "I was dazed and struggled for the remainder of that game."

Despite blackouts, memory loss and ongoing headaches, Hohaia continued to play but said the nadir came a few weeks later.

"We were sitting in the video review room going through the match against Warrington and I didn't remember anything that I was watching," he says. "I played about 40 minutes and I know we won, I know I played hooker, but I didn't remember anything from the game.

"I was thinking, 'wow, that is not good'. With my two young boys, I started to think about what my life would be like if I sustained anything worse ... anything permanent."

Hohaia said he talked to the club doctors and it was decided his condition would be monitored. In retrospect, Hohaia admits he should have made a bigger deal of it but was afraid to consider his career might be ending.

I was in a lot of pain and my wife was very concerned. I was repeating myself and forgetting things.
Lance Hohaia

On April 12, 2015, St Helens trumped Huddersfield 11-8 at John Smith Stadium. Hohaia had come through his eighth game of the season relatively unscathed - or so he thought.

Some club officials and team-mates "commented in the dressing room that they [Huddersfield] had been 'really out to get me'," Hohaia said.

"A few others said the same thing. I had taken a few knocks to the head but I didn't remember any of that, didn't remember getting banged around."

It was agreed Hohaia would sit out the next game against Leeds while tests were carried out. Hohaia felt he needed an extended break. The club, faced with a mounting injury toll, took a different view, he said.

"I had tests but, with concussion and brain injuries, there is not an exact science," says Hohaia. "The tests were inconclusive but I needed some time.

"Unfortunately Saints chose not to support me through that time and that hurt me a lot. I was always putting the team first but putting myself first was something I had to do for my family."

Hohaia said he was expected to keep playing.

"I was offered prescription medicines to help with the headaches. I wasn't comfortable with that, as it was masking a bigger problem.

"I needed a period of time to heal but I wasn't given that choice. The option was, take the medication and play ... or walk away."

Hohaia is adamant he "doesn't want to throw anyone under the bus" but it's obvious the way he was treated cuts deeply.

He retired in April 2015, after it became clear St Helens were unwilling to honour his contract unless he took the field.

St Helens declined to comment when approached by the Herald on Sunday this week, deferring to what they had said previously about Hohaia.

The club wished him well and felt he had made the decision to retire some time previously. An official went on to say Hohaia was disappointed he had let the team down.

However, the club released a strongly worded statement after publication of this report (Sunday morning NZT) rejecting Hohaia's version of events.

St Helens said that Hohaia had "received the highest level of professional support and empathy, both rugby and medical".

The club added that "at no time was he put under any pressure or duress by the club to play and he was provided with highest level of professional advice and support by the club. St Helens set the very highest standards in that regard".

Hohaia said that after his retirement, attempts to communicate with the club were referred to their lawyers and he spent the next few months in England without earning a wage, in limbo as he waited for a work permit.

Hohaia says he never contemplated legal action against either the club or Flower.

"It was a significant amount of money but it was more important that I was around in the future. That was all that mattered," says Hohaia.

Right now, Lance Koro Hohaia is in good place. We are at Mt Smart, a place with so many happy memories for Warrior No 99, as he watches his sons Riley (three) and Tyler (20 months) run across the turf.

He'll soon start work with a property development company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is studying for his real estate licence. He has also found peace in his heart, able to forgive Flower - and trying to forget how St Helens treated him.

"I don't have any hate towards Ben Flower," says Hohaia. "We have spoken by text and I have accepted his apology.

"It took a long time to get over it but I don't want to walk around with hate in my heart for someone who ended something.

"Have I experienced dislike towards him? Yes, of course, but you have to let that kind of stuff go.

"With St Helens ... to not have that support was a really sad feeling for us. It felt like they weren't supporting a person, it was just business. It left a sour taste but St Helens are within their rights to feel how they want about the situation.

"I made the decision that was best for me and my family. I'm trying to look forward to the next chapter of my life and consider myself one of the lucky ones."

- NZ Herald

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