A serious blow to the head, his third in three years, has kept Chiefs' prop Ben Afeaki on the sidelines for months. Liam Napier reports.
Nausea, dizziness, fogginess. Trouble concentrating, driving, even managing everyday living.
Welcome to Ben Afeaki's world. Twelve months ago the Chiefs prop was at the peak of his career, making his All Blacks debut against France. His dream was reality, until a third head knock in the space of three years put life after rugby into sharp perspective.
More than four months on from his last serious blow to the head, the 26-year-old, considered one of New Zealand's most promising frontrowers, remains trapped in a haze as he deals with the confronting effects of concussion.
"I'm still getting symptoms, mainly nausea and fogginess in the mornings," Afeaki says.
"I probably get them every day. The most is nausea. Normally I get it from concentrating too much; reading or looking at screens. And when I hop in the car I tend to get it a bit. Four out of seven mornings I wake up feeling a little foggy. It kind of goes away and then comes back for maybe five or 10 minutes during the day.
"If I get them [fogginess] for longer than 10 to 15 minutes I have to stop what I'm doing and sit down and do nothing, really. If I get neck pain then I have a nap. Otherwise you've got to push through and limit what you do."
Symptoms first arose after a head clash with Chiefs team-mate Brodie Retallick in mid-February. Afeaki has not played since.
"I've been battling ever since. It's been really hard. It's given me a lot of time to start organising my life after rugby. If I get another one or this one doesn't clear up I'll have to throw in the towel. It's a big eye opener."
Briefly, after an eight-week recovery, Afeaki thought he was "good to go" only for a light knee to the head at training to stir up recurring problems.
"I started to feel better and got through a couple of trainings. Then I got that little knock and I knew it'd be a while because the head was no good."
Afeaki has written off this season. Not yet his career, though. Watching team-mates train and not being able to partake was the hardest element of recovery.
A recent trip to the Australian Sunshine Coast alongside fellow injured Chiefs' players Robbie Robinson and Ross Filipo with Athletes To Business NZ, through its injury rehabilitation programme, allowed time out of the rugby system to consider his future.
Leading mental skills coach, David Galbraith, also attempted to help Afeaki come to terms with the fact he may have to pull the pin. Whatever happens, he intends to finish his degree in property and business.
"I've spoken with him quite a bit. We've talked through the possibility of not returning. That's something I'd have to deal with if it comes around.
"You focus on something to try and achieve your goals and if it comes to an end I'll be able to make new goals in other areas of my life; goals outside of rugby."
Thankfully, prominent coverage of concussion in recent years has forced most sports to comply with stringent testing and return-to-play guidelines. Had Afeaki suffered such symptoms even five years ago he may have brushed them off or been asked to play the following week. His recovery has, instead, been well assisted by the Chiefs.
"I've had three pretty bad ones now so it's about taking time for my own health. I'm not trying to rush back and pretend it's alright then go and play. That wouldn't be good for the team or myself.
"The amount of testing you have to do to comeback, they're really strict on it now. It's awesome for the player's health that they care about that."
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was another sounding board. After enduring a similar series of concussions throughout his 127-test career, McCaw offered compelling advice. Afeaki also spoke to former North Harbour, Blues and Melbourne Rebels flanker Tom Chamberlain, who ended his career following frequent head knocks.
"He said not to rush it; that you can't mess around with your head," Afeaki said of McCaw's wisdom. "I had a good yarn about how he got over it. The best thing was not forcing himself to come right. He took some time away, played golf to keep busy and he knew when he was right. He's had no problems ever since."
For now, Afeaki is content to be patient. While an Auckland specialist offered hope he could make a full recovery, for the first time he's taken proactive steps towards alternate life plans.
"The specialist has seen many players in my situation return to play. And there's always a couple that haven't. I'll just have to take my time; it's day by day at the moment. It's frustrating but as soon as my symptoms clear up I'm itching to go out there and train and get back to playing."
His parent's base in Ruakaka has been another escape, while support from his partner, friends, team-mates and coaches should ensure his future, whatever field that may play out on, continues to be managed with extreme care.
- Sunday Star Times
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