Ex-All Black who suffered big hits during games wants more support for veterans.

A former All Black with long-term CTE symptoms has launched a broadside at New Zealand Rugby and CEO Steve Tew.

Geoff Old played three tests and 14 matches for the All Blacks between 1980-83 and is best remembered as being part of a powerhouse Manawatu pack that held the Ranfurly Shield between 1976-78 and won the national provincial championship in 1980.

Now he lives in Florida with wife Irene Gottlieb-Old, where he faces an uncertain, potentially grim, future.

Old suffers from cognitive impairment - often a precursor to Alzheimer's disease - and has carried CTE symptoms for the past 15 years. He is just 60.


Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy can only be diagnosed post-mortem by dissection of the brain, but Old is demonstrating all the tell-tale signs that afflicted several well-known American football players before their deaths and eventual diagnoses: blinding headaches, forgetfulness, irritability, lethargy and depression.

"I'm scared about where I'm heading and I'm worried on a daily basis about what my wife will have to go through," he said. "Nobody else seems to care."

Old was angered to read Tew's comments, after this week's Herald investigation into rugby and dementia, that NZR's obligation was not the plight of former players, but the protection of the current generation.

While noting "compassion and concern" for those former rugby players suffering dementia, Tew said: "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.

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

Old has a ready response: "That's bullshit."

"We're all living as though the ones you read about are the only ones affected.

"You [the Herald] highlighted Taranaki. I guarantee if you dug deep in Canterbury, Wellington, Counties, Waikato, Auckland you'd find the same stories. That article was the tip of the iceberg.

"It's all very well to say you're looking after the current generation, but what about the guys who have bashed each other up for the past 30 years? We're screwed.

"We didn't get paid, we played for the love of the game and to help make it what it is now."

Old was moved by the plight of the Taranaki Ranfurly Shield team of 1964, where five players have died with, or are suffering from, dementia.

"I played with all those bloody guys," said Old. "It's ridiculous. I can remember those guys but I can't remember what I had for breakfast."

Gottlieb-Old said attempts to get anyone in authority in New Zealand to engage had been an exercise in frustration. "Everyone thought we were after some American-styled gravy train but all we want is some sort of support group.

"Geoff played rugby. He played for the All Blacks. He should have some dignity and kinship; Kiwis looking after Kiwis. That's what is meant to happen, isn't it?"

Old estimated he was knocked out cold on the field twice - "the zambuck [medic] would come on and tip some water over your head and you'd carry on" - but it was those Manawatu practices where the real damage was done.

"That was a tough team. You were trying to impress each other and trying to impress the coach [Graham Hamer]. I got my bell rung ... more times than I can remember. But we had this saying that the mail must get through. If you backed down or left the field you'd lose your place."

Old became a rugby globetrotter, coaching the Dutch national team between 1997-99 before a family tragedy - he lost his son to meningococcal sepsis. He later moved to America where, in late 2000, he was appointed as US Rugby's technical director. That's when he started noticing that "things weren't happening as they should".

The former No 8 was forgetting the most basic things and was gaining a reputation for unreliability.

And those headaches, the ones that started in the same place at the back of the skull and took a vice-like grip, drained whatever energy Old had left.

"I couldn't handle it. Not because I didn't have the ability to do the job, but my brain wasn't functioning as it should," he said.

Gottlieb-Old witnessed her "super-positive" partner turn into a couch potato.

"He sat on the couch for a year watching TV," she said. "It became hard to wake up every day waving pom-poms with that going on."