A Herald investigation has revealed that five men from the 1964 Ranfurly Shield-winning Taranaki rugby team have been diagnosed with dementia. Their families attribute their illness to concussions suffered during their playing days. Dylan Cleaver reports on the reaction of the Players' Association.
A bloodied Craig Dowd leaves the field. Photo / Getty Images
A bloodied Craig Dowd leaves the field. Photo / Getty Images

Nichol says players are becoming more proactive when it comes to managing their health, but there's still a macho element out there who see leaving the field as a sign of weakness, much like going to the doctor is still something to be avoided at all costs for too many New Zealand males.

"Certainly as a society we're very reactive with our health, not proactive. We're still dealing with societal issues like that and that competitive nature of wanting to be part of the team, wanting to do your piece. We're still battling that."

New Zealand is now recognised as being ahead of the curve in terms of its diagnosis and treatment of head injuries, but rugby will never be a safe sport. Athletes are getting bigger. Collisions are becoming more traumatic.

"People just weren't aware of the dangers back then and if they were aware they were in denial. That's been a problem," Nichol says.


"Yes, it's getting much better but from a world perspective there is a massive variation between the different environments. In New Zealand high-performance rugby we've got quite an advanced situation in how we operate the new protocol around the head injury assessment process.

"But then there are other professional environments around the world where it's substandard, frankly. Through the International Players Association we're trying to address those.

"At the amateur and community level of the game there's been a big push around the 'recognise and remove' scenario, but the onus is on those at the coalface, the coaches, the referees and the players themselves to take ownership. We've got to get past that emotion of, 'I've got to stay on and see the game out.'

"If you suspect there's a concussion, get them off the field and get them some help."

That was never an option for those legends of Taranaki rugby, who played in an era without replacements, without television cameras and without judiciaries who punished those who attacked the heads.

They played, also in an era without pay, and they grew up in a society that taught them not to ask for help.

But help is what they need. And if it's not them, it will be the next generation of rugby players, and the ones after that...