A sevens international who is arguably the most talented rugby player ever produced in the UAE faces the prospect of having to quit the sport at age 25 because of repeated head injuries.
Jonny Macdonald, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi and first learnt the game while a pupil at the British School Al Khubairat, was selected for Scotland at the Hong Kong Sevens three years ago.
That recognition followed an appearance for the Arabian Gulf at the Sevens World Cup, and he also went on to play at the Millennium Stadium while a student at Cardiff University.
However, his progress in the sport has effectively been halted by a string of concussions, including three this season alone. He is on a break from playing and is back in Abu Dhabi, having taken indefinite leave from his job in sports marketing in Hong Kong.
Doctors advised him to take “cognitive rest” because he suffers from headaches, a shortened attention span and insomnia.
While he is here, he hopes to join up with his former club, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, to train, but he has been cautioned off contact and competitive match play.
“I have had too many knocks and stupidly tried to get back playing too soon each time,” Macdonald said. “It built up and reached a point now where it has got too much. I’m definitely not playing for the rest of this season and will review later on whether I play again at all.
“With more concussions, you are susceptible to suffering more when you play and I have reached a point now where if I suffer a big knock, I am pretty much out.”
Macdonald said he believes more needs to be done to educate all players, particularly in the amateur game, of the dangers of concussion.
“It is something that is not spoken about enough in rugby,” he said. “If someone has a broken leg, it is very obvious he can’t play, but it is very easy to forget the fact someone has been knocked out a week or two before.
“It is not just coaches. I have done it myself, rushed back, perhaps because I have not been educated about the long-term effects.”
Macdonald’s viewpoint is supported by Chris Page, a medical professional and long-serving physiotherapist of the national team.
Page says he had an on-field argument with one of the UAE players in a match during the International Invitational tournament at November’s Dubai Rugby Sevens. The player had already scored several tries in a match, and the team went on to lose the game, but Page says his commitment was to the player’s welfare.
“The player was clearly knocked out for around 10 seconds. He suddenly came round and was ready to punch me for not letting him back on the field,” Page said. “I have the final say, but you have to be strong enough in your belief in yourself as a medical person to say they can’t go back on.
“If you have people who are less experienced dealing with this on the field, it is often left to the player to decide.
“I do believe people have a very poor education on concussion. It gets lost in the testosterone of the game.”
Page says the International Rugby Board have improved their attempts to educate people on the issue in recent years, but the message does not always filter down to the amateur game.
According to irb.com: “Concussion management is at the very heart of the International Rugby Board’s player-welfare strategies and the message to players, coaches and parents is clear – if in doubt, sit it out.”
If Macdonald does have to sit out competitive rugby in future, he says he will still remain deeply involved with the sport he loves.
“It is a massive part of my life, not just in terms of the rugby but in terms of socially as well,” he said. “A large majority of my friends are through rugby. I love the sport and even if I do stop playing, I will still remain involved in the game without a shadow of doubt.
“Whether it be through coaching or even just running on water bottles, I will stay as closely involved as possible.”