Sad news; Wales hero has been diagnosed with severe brain injury

Wales Grand Slam hero named in brain injury case speaks out in first interview


For the first time since being named in the brain injury lawsuit that has shook rugby, former Wales international Ian Gough has spoken out, claiming that during his career, concussions were not given enough serious consideration.

Gough, one of the around 300 rugby players suing the regulatory bodies of the sport, maintains that despite having several concussions over the course of his 18-year career, he was never told to miss a game due to one. According to him, there was a peer pressure culture in the sport that encouraged participants to endanger their health by playing.

Gough has received a variety of medical testing, and although he has not received the dismal prognosis that some other players have, he has shown enough long-term effects of concussion to appear on the lawsuit against the game’s governing bodies. “I had concussions throughout my career but did I miss any games because of it? No I didn’t,” Gough told WalesOnline.

“Although I suffered several concussions, I never missed a game as a result. After getting hit in the head and leaving the field concussed, I recall that a staff member gave me a shoulder rub and stated I should be fine for Saturday as we entered the changing room.

“I discovered that many people struggled with peer pressure and that people weren’t acting very sensibly in such situation. I remember getting struck hard by Martin Cory in Leicester and being knocked out with a concussion by Rowland Phillips’ high tackle during the first half of Pontypridd up in Neath.

“I played the entire game in spite of this. I was clearly showing signs of a concussion after full time, but nothing came of it and I didn’t miss any games. I was shaking and a little disoriented, so I couldn’t recall where the changing rooms were.

“There was, of course, the major concussion I sustained when Mark Jones punched and knocked me out while I was playing for Pontypridd in the Ebbw Vale. I had to take a few weeks off work to have my eye sewn up, but at the time, no concussion protocols were in place, so I was completely out cold.

“I didn’t have a clue what it was all about at that point and what damage could be caused from it. It didn’t feel at the time that I had a massive concussion issue that week following the injury and I wasn’t feeling sick.

“There was no protocol and no testing at that point, and nothing we would go through to say one way or the other. That was in 1999.”

Gough was a player who risked his life every game during an incredibly successful playing career that included stints with Newport, Pontypridd, the Dragons, the Ospreys, and the London Irish.

When the New Zealander took over as head coach of Wales in 2008, the 64-cap Wales lock was an integral member of Warren Gatland’s team. Gough was a strong tackling lock who took great satisfaction in his strength and showed no concern for his personal safety while playing.

He didn’t realize the extent of the harm a concussion can do to the brain until much later in his career, when he attended a seminar on the subject. “We were having concussion talks at the Dragons,” he stated.

“I remember one of the medical team basically sat us down in one room and told us about secondary concussions, and the danger of fatalities from a secondary concussion before primary concussion had healed. Her point was if you’d gained a secondary concussion, and that primary concussion hadn’t healed yet, it might take several weeks or more to heal depending on the individual.

“If you get a secondary concussion before the first one has healed then you’ve got a 50% chance of fatality. That struck a big chord with me at that meeting. I thought I’ve had loads of concussions and I didn’t know that. I was 38 at that point.”

Many individuals are still unaware of the consequences of repeated head hits in rugby. It is still possible for a player to have a subconcussion even if they pass a head injury assessment.

Gough told WalesOnline, “Short concussions followed by another are very dangerous.”

“I was getting calf issues while I was at London Irish. The physiotherapist I saw, who administered these particular injections, was located in central London.

“I recall speaking with him once; he was a chief physician for English rugby at the time and was very interested in concussions. He claimed to have resigned from his position in 2013 because he believed that concussions were not being appropriately managed at the time.

“He said, ‘how many times have you been concussed?’ I said in one season probably two to three times where physically I’ve had symptoms like blurred vision, a headache, and feeling sick.

“He then asked me how many little concussions I’ve had and I said well I’ve had loads of those. He then said well that’s all a concussion.

“That’s the first time I knew about that and that was in 2013 just two years before I retired. The other ones are obvious where you are knocked out cold.”

The most pressing issue facing rugby union at the moment is how to address the very real risk of brain damage resulting from a high frequency of concussions. An increasing number of ex-professional athletes are experiencing life-altering consequences from brain trauma that may have seemed harmless to others.

By the time they are in their 50s, some gamers can possibly find themselves in a care facility or perhaps lose the memory of the names of their loved ones. Even though it is the most extreme case, there are many other situations that are coming to light. For example, Ryan Jones and Alix Popham, two former Wales internationals, were both diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

The likes of Gough claim they were not fully aware of the potentially devastating consequences of repeated concussions when they decided to play elite rugby. They knew there was a high risk of broken bones, lost teeth, dislocations, and even serious neck injuries.

“I did all the testing and I’m part of the suit but my injuries with that are quite minimal in comparison to other players,” stated the 47-year-old. “I must admit, I feel a little weirdly terrible about escaping a gunshot.

“I suffered numerous concussions. You mention a Tuesday or Wednesday session; if things don’t work out physically on the weekend, you usually go back to the old school.

“If things didn’t go well physically in the game and tackles were missed and other certain things went wrong in the game it was nearly always the case you’d go flat out early in the week. With certain coaches it was always like murder ball.

“For instance, they’d be like here’s the ball, 10 players v 10 players, there’s ten yards and you’ve got to score or defend a try in a small channel fully apposed. You are flying into each other.

“You have emotions running high from the weekend where things haven’t gone well and somebody is vying for your position. So, you fly into people in those Tuesday and Wednesday sessions.

“The coaches used to laugh at times if some blood was spilt because it proved the boys were up for it. They were like, look they are up for it today, there’s blood, and there’s stitches.

“That was throughout my career. It was like on Tuesday and Wednesday we need this hit out otherwise we won’t play well on the weekend. I very rarely saw someone not play on a Saturday because they got a bang on the head on a Tuesday or Wednesday.”

Several charities have been pushing for new policies to be implemented in order to reduce the likelihood of concussions during games and to provide players with better care while they deal with the aftereffects of recurrent head trauma in recent years. One such nonprofit is Head for Change, which is also testing an educational program to be implemented in schools and community clubs while advocating for a decrease in the impact of training.

About enacting laws that lessen the likelihood of suffering brain injuries, World Rugby has received equal acclaim and criticism. Gough thinks there should be a balance struck between reducing the violence of the game and making it as safe as possible.

“They need to make the game as safe as possible but there’s got to be a balance,” he said. “One of The issues Alix Popham’s charity is pushing to change is the impacts in training.

“It’s about lessening the load in training and the amount of times you’re subject to these sessions where you are getting repetitive bangs. The big thing is making sure the concussion is healed before you play again.

“There was only one club I played for which pushed me through injuries which weren’t healed. Everybody plays with niggles but there’s a fine line between what’s a niggle and what needs to be rested.

“If you pull a ligament in your ankle then you can’t run on it, that has a process of rehab before you return to play. Until that’s right and you have stability and strength in that ankle then you can’t play.

“There’s a stringent process with stuff like lower limb and shoulder injuries but that hasn’t happened consistently with concussions over the years. With concussions, because of the type of injury it is, a physio will sometimes ask ‘do you feel alright?’, you’d say yes and then you can play.

“With injuries to the shoulder and lower limbs, there is a strict procedure, but over time, that hasn’t happened with concussions. Because concussions are a specific kind of injury, a physical therapist may ask you if you feel okay. If you respond positively, you can resume playing.

“From the outside, some may assume that because you have a strong enough will, you should be able to refuse, but in a professional rugby setting, things are very different. All boys want to do is play.

“Having the medical staff make that decision on your behalf is important. Most players will attempt to play if they are 50/50 or worse.”

Even while the needs of players must come first in this game, it would be shocking if more players didn’t come out with serious illnesses like early-onset dementia. The true threat comes from parents who forbid their kids from playing rugby due to the possibility of brain damage.

Gough also insists that there is a true turning point in the game. “When I finished my career I didn’t want my sons playing, and they don’t play,” said Gough.

“We were asked about the matter in 2015 by Andries Pretorius, who was the head of the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association at the time. Coaches and players were unanimous in their belief that parents shouldn’t let their kids play the game under the risk of suffering injuries and concussions.

That’s undoubtedly a serious concern. Many would argue that we could ruin the game, but I believe that responsibility for one’s actions must be taken if one has committed an offense.

You are accountable if you knew of a way to make the game safer but chose not to take it. You owe that human being a duty of care, so you ought to have made it safer.

“Considering that the average death rate is in the 80s, why should people suffer into their 40s, 50s, and 60s, which is a young age? You are interacting with people.

“Rugby taught me so much, it’s amazing. I would detest it if children stopped playing because of what had happened.

“It must be made safer starting at the ground up. To avoid making those mistakes at a young age, people must be educated.

“You are making the right decisions for the wellbeing of that human being so he or she flourishes and get to enjoy this great game.”

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