Concussions still haunting Kiwis league greats

SARAH HARVEY AND AARON LAWTON
Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014
Awen Guttenbeil
Fairfax NZ
SAW STARS: Awen Guttenbeil recalls times he played on after big head knocks.

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Kiwi rugby league stars have spoken of playing through concussion and of their fear the "tough guy" culture in league may mean they have suffered irreparable damage.

The admissions come following a week of soul-searching for both union and league players after former Manly bruiser Ian Roberts revealed concussion suffered during his playing days had left him brain damaged.

The NRL has this year clamped down on how suspected concussion suffered during a game is treated, introducing a 15-minute assessment period for players who have sustained a heavy knock to the head.

But retired Kiwi league stalwarts, including renowned hard men Awen Guttenbeil, Tawera Nikau, Wairangi Koopu and Tony Kemp, say it has come too late for players of their eras.

Guttenbeil, who played 170 games for the Warriors and 10 tests for the Kiwis, and retired in 2008, said there were times during his career when he would be "running around and just seeing stars".

"Everything was blurry but I'd keep pushing on because I didn't want to let my team-mates down."

He had suffered occasional memory loss but, until recently, had put it down to old age.

"You do start to question it. But I took to the field knowing that there was a risk involved and that concussions were part of the game."

Former Kiwis international Nikau, an uncompromising forward for the Cronulla Sharks and Melbourne Storm in the 1990s, said there were "plenty of times" when he could not remember finishing a game after being hit in the head.

"From that era that we played in, a lot of guys, I think, played with concussion."

Nikau said he suffered from memory loss "now and again".

"I definitely think there is some correlation between what happened on the field and some of the memory loss we had over the years."

Nikau said he was confident the right moves were being made by the NRL.

"The game is so fast and so much quicker and with such a high impact now, and the NRL must have a duty of care to make sure players are OK."

Former Kiwi test player and Warriors coach Kemp said about 80 per cent of the time he was playing he was "seeing stars - one of the symptoms of concussion".

"And I wasn't alone. That was, I hasten to say, the nature of the contact sport I played in the 1980s and early 90s."

Kemp said there was a "tough-guy culture" in rugby league and nobody really understood the dangers associated with concussion, both short-term and long-term, when he was playing.

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He said he "undoubtedly" struggled with memory loss at times.

"Was it all those head knocks that have battered my brain around? Or is it just hereditary? The truthful answer is that I really don't know."

Koopu, who wore headgear for much of his career after suffering a number of facial injuries, said it often seemed to come down to luck as to whether a player would suffer ill effects from a head knock after retiring.

"I know a lot of players who have walked away from the game with no issues at all, and then there are others who perhaps took a bit too much punishment, and have been affected quite badly."

The former league stars all said they knew of former players who had also battled with issues like depression since hanging up their boots.

Dr John Mayhew, the current Warriors' medic and former All Blacks doctor, has been at the forefront of changes in the NRL.

Mayhew is one of 16 doctors on a medical advisory group for the NRL that meets a couple of times a year.

He said medical staff had managed concussion as "best as we can" for the past 10 to 20 years, however a lack of data made it hard to see the impact on ex-players.

- Sunday Star Times

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