NZ Rugby to investigate concussion-dementia link

By Dylan Cleaver

Greg Rowlands with his grandsons Flynn, 4, left, and Reid, 3. Photo / Alan Gibson
Greg Rowlands with his grandsons Flynn, 4, left, and Reid, 3. Photo / Alan Gibson

New Zealand Rugby has partnered with Statistics NZ to try to determine whether the lasting impacts of concussions while playing rugby increase the risk of dementia.

The project is in its early stages but NZ Rugby hopes the findings will provide "robust answers to that critical question".

NZ Rugby will use official data to compare the rates of dementia among players who played high-level rugby in New Zealand between 1950 and 1970 and those who did not.

READ MORE: Rugby research caught in the breakdown

"We are well aware that much has changed over the past 40 years," NZ Rugby said.

"The public awareness of concussion, the way concussion injuries are managed, and the nature of rugby itself have all changed dramatically since those players who have dementia now last played."

Statistics NZ's David McNaughtan said "until the research is under way we won't know how robust the data will be but we are optimistic that we will be able to help".

It is the first application Statistics NZ has received for this type of project.

"There are other research projects covering dementia but not related to sport specifically," Mr McNaughtan said.

In March, the Herald published a series of articles linking dementia to rugby. It was an unscientific series that highlighted the fact that at least five players from the Taranaki Ranfurly Shield side of 1964 had died or were suffering from dementia symptoms. The families of the afflicted pointed to the numerous concussions the players suffered during their playing careers.

One of the players cited was Neil Wolfe, the youngest All Black when he was picked to play his first test against France in 1961. He was knocked out cold in the first half, played on and "woke up" in the Eden Park changing sheds at half-time. It was one of several bad concussions he suffered during his career. "I have a little bit of dementia now, and I suppose it relates back to the time when I was playing rugby and did get knocked out," Wolfe told the Herald.

The series prompted responses from the families and friends of other former All Blacks with dementia symptoms.

They included Manawatu loose forward Geoff Old, who described the Herald's list of cases as "the tip of the iceberg" and Bay of Plenty fullback Greg Rowlands, who is now in a Tauranga care home for dementia patients.

Rowlands' son Brent described realising that something was wrong in his early teens when his dad repeatedly forgot to pick him up from his rugby practice. "Mum would be like, 'Where's the kids?'"

Another story reported that four All Blacks who toured Britain in 1967 were also suffering from dementia, including legendary flanker Waka Nathan.

Wolfe and Nathan met up last weekend at the Barbarians club before the first test between the All Blacks and Wales.

Brooke Wolfe, the youngest of Neil Wolfe's four children, said the fact NZ Rugby was looking to answer questions around dementia was "awesome news, fantastic".

The news comes as the Herald received a tranche of emails under the Official Information Act regarding the Rugby Health Study commissioned by World Rugby and carried out by researchers at the Auckland University of Technology.

The project was fraught, with World Rugby and NZ Rugby staff disagreeing with AUT researchers about what should be revealed to the public, particularly around long-term cognitive impairment issues, such as dementia.

In a series of emails, lead researcher Patria Hume expressed growing frustration at the rugby bodies' unwillingness to highlight key findings.

In one email to a colleague, Hume wrote: "They [World and NZ Rugby] just do not want us to say there is any issue at all."

NZ Rugby and World Rugby said the preliminary findings of the study, presented as a fact sheet, were in no way sanitised and any conflict with AUT was a normal part of the "robust debate" involved in scientific study.

- NZ Herald

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