“Rugby league gave me a focus, a purpose, a sense of direction. It was everything for me, so if I had to pay the ultimate price for that then so be it.”
Legendary England and St Helens forward James Graham says he would have died for league, as he leads a ground-breaking player discussion on concussion this week.
Aptly released on “Time to Talk Day”, its aim was to persuade the sport to get real and help itself on one of its most taboo subjects.
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The project was the brainchild of Stevie Ward, a former Leeds captain forced to retire aged just 27 as he struggled with the brain injuries collected from an unforgiving and all-too-short professional career.
“Concussion is in the mind of anyone involved in the sport at the moment,” says Graham, who discovered via MRI last year that his own brain has been left damaged by 100 concussions over a 17-year career.
”From an athlete’s perspective we know the pressures and sacrifices. The meaning in life for me was to find something worth dying for, was that rugby league? When a neurologist advises me to discontinue, what am I supposed to do?”.
As a close friend of Ward’s, I’ve witnessed his struggle first hand over the past few years. Through the injury itself, the battle to get fit again, the realisation and retirement, followed by the ‘what the hell I do now?’ anxiety and severe depression which is accompanying the day-to-day dizziness and migraines that he is having to learn to live with. And it’s not just the individual that suffers, but those closest to them too.
Ward is keen to use his experience to push for positive and meaningful change in how this macho sport views and deals with concussion. Elsewhere a group of former players have brought a bigger claim against the sport as a whole, which has seen a radical rethink in protection, protocols and player safety.
Ward believes the sport has been too casual and even laughed off the issue in the past; players joking when they can’t remember things, others teased if they complain of having headaches. In the same way the person in the office who was off work through mental illness, was always referred to as being off with “stress”. More awareness means more talking, which hopefully breaks down stigma and brings about change.
Graham believes that players should be given annual mental health and brain assessments, in the same way that they undergo such rigorous physical exams every winter when they report for pre-season training.
“A lot of former players struggle, myself included, with depression and anxiety,” Graham adds on the special “Concussion Round Table” for Sky Sports.
“I was so fortunate I got it fixed. How many players leave the game in extreme pain and choose self-medication? It spirals out of control. We need an annual brain, body and mind check up. We take our car for an MOT. We need a service, somewhere to go for a check up, the results I believe would be phenomenal.”
Ward and Graham open up in a chat including winger Tom Johnstone, forward Tyrone McCarthy - who retired last year, and prop Greg Burke.
McCarthy describes being knocked out and waking up in front of his heavily pregnant wife in hospital, seeing worry on her face. Asking after his daughters, asking when his driving test was. “We laughed about it but the family is your main club and that is what led me to retire. I had a fractured eye socket and still have double vision today. We need to build environments where players feel safe to tell us they are not alright.”
Winger Johnstone has just signed for Catalans but says his injuries at Wakefield have already changed his mindset.
“I got a blow to the head that seemed like nothing but I knew I wasn’t right. I don’t remember 40 minutes of that game, and for the next 12 weeks I didn’t know what was going on; headaches constantly, couldn’t go for a walk. Really scary times which changed my whole outlook on the game. Yes we are tough, but we need to be smarter as well.”
Few league fans want the game sanitised in a way that would lose the thuggish essence of the sport that so many fall in love with for that very reason. Recent changes to tackle laws in rugby union that saw a unanimous vote to lower the tackle-height in the amateur game to the waist received a sizable backlash.
For players like Graham and Ward, the priority is talking and honesty, rather than sanitisation of the game itself.
“Deep down I did know what I signed up for,” Graham adds. “But we can make it slightly safer and evolutionise it.”
Elsewhere this week the BBC releases its latest documentary on Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow. “Going the Extra Mile” charts the former Leeds captain’s extraordinary endurance running exploits that have raised millions in the name of former Rhinos team-mate Burrow, who was diagnosed with MND in 2019.
Burrow’s heartbreaking plight has brought the very best out of Sinfield, a lifelong leader on the field who is now doing the same off it.
His autumn challenge of seven ultra-marathons in seven days almost finished him off. In Friday night’s film it is revealed the team has a contingency plan based on very real fears that Sinfield would collapse even before the final leg of the run from Leeds to Manchester. His legs had stopped working along with rapidly reduced awareness and cognition.
“I felt like I was having to switch different systems off just to keep alive,” Sinfield recalls.
“Like I was in a cockpit, running out of fuel, about to go down but trying to stay in the air as long as you can and find a way of hitting the runway.”
Yet nobody was surprised to see Sinfield reach the finishing line.
His professional rise has been fascinating also. Sinfield never wanted to be a coach. Indeed when we sat down in a south Manchester coffee house soon after his retirement a few years ago, he had just turned down the chance to be assistant coach to Brian McDermott at Leeds. His subsequent role with the RFL, England and then back at the Rhinos was more in administration than in a tracksuit.
Yet the legendary player has now found his coaching mojo, finally, in one of the top jobs as defence coach with England rugby union. The coaching drills that he has used in his union career to date with Leicester have been predominantly league drills from Headingley, which the players have all taken to with relish he tells me.
England rugby union fans have every right to feel optimistic with Sinfield in the set up. Failure is not a word he has ever had to live with for too long.
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