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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Concussion in rugby: Former Wales starlet cut down in his prime says: It was the worst day of my life

Matthew Pewtner, who played internationally for Wales sevens and in the Pro 12 for Newport Gwent Dragons, will start work as the backs coach of Dubai Hurricanes this month.

Wales' Matthew Pewtner, centre, is tackled by Kenya's Dennis Ombachi during their semi-final match at the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament in Hong Kong March 24, 2013. Bobby Yip / Reuters
Wales' Matthew Pewtner, centre, is tackled by Kenya's Dennis Ombachi during their semi-final match at the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament in Hong Kong March 24, 2013. Bobby Yip / Reuters

A former international who had his dream career as a rugby professional ended on his 25th birthday because of concussion is preparing to start the next phase of his life as a coach in Dubai.

Matthew Pewtner, who played internationally for Wales sevens and in the Pro 12 for Newport Gwent Dragons, will start work as the backs coach of Dubai Hurricanes this month.

He is moving to the UAE to take up a job as a teacher, as he attempts to move on from having his playing days ended by one catastrophic head injury while playing two years ago.

The former wing says he has no memory of the week leading up to the incident, which occurred while playing for Dragons in the Premiership Sevens in the summer of 2015, or the two weeks which followed.

He remembers the day, six months later, that he was told he would not be able to play again all too well.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Pewtner said. “I was told on my 25th birthday that I could no longer play, and it was in the best interest of my health and future that I hang up my boots.

“This was on the back of the two best seasons I had ever had, and having recently re-signed for two further seasons. It was hard to take, and still is.

“The feeling of running out on to that field to express yourself as best you can, doing the thing you love more than anything is something that I will never feel again. That is what I miss most.”

All he knows about the moment that changed his direction in life is what he has seen on video.

“It would seem that I hit my head when tackling a Harlequins player from behind,” he said. “I am then slow to my feet and very unsteady, shortly after removed from play, and taken to hospital.”

The physical effects have been lasting. “To this day I suffer with headaches,” he said.

“This is usually an early warning system that my symptoms are going to deteriorate unless I get my head down and relax, whether that is in a physical or mental capacity.

“Photosensitivity, migraine, emotional well-being, concentration, balance and coordination are further symptoms if I do not allow myself to rest once a headache starts to kick in.”

Pewtner, now 26, had been part of the Dragons academy since he was 15, and made his first-team debut at 17.

Being a professional player was all he knew, and he had not yet any thoughts about life after rugby.

“It was very intimidating to be out in the big wide world,” he said. “I knew that whatever I did next needed to incite the same passion that rugby has always done for me.”

He became a school teacher, a job that he will now dovetailed in Dubai with coaching the Hurricanes backs.

He acknowledges he knows little of the UAE. What might have proved to be an advanced recce, back in 2013, fell through when a hamstring injury ruled him out of touring with Wales for the Dubai Rugby Sevens – one of the biggest disappointments of his playing day, he says.

He was recruited by the Hurricanes after emailing, via the contact list on the club’s website, on the off chance to enquire about opportunities.

Matthew Pewtner of Newport Gwent Dragons is tackled during the Premiership Rugby 7's Series finals at Twickenham Stoop on August 28, 2015 in London, England. David Rogers / Getty Images
Matthew Pewtner of Newport Gwent Dragons is tackled during the Premiership Rugby 7's Series finals at Twickenham Stoop on August 28, 2015 in London, England. David Rogers / Getty Images

Mike Wernham, the Hurricanes director of rugby, was wowed by his ideas – and also discovered a like mind in the process.

Wernham represented England at age-group level, but had his own chances of a professional player career ended by a broken neck while just a 22-year-old student.

“We have similarities because my career was cut short as well, and I got the impression that he has a similar trait in that we both feel we have unfinished business,” Wernham said.

“He has definitely got a huge motivation to succeed. Admittedly I haven’t seen him coach yet, and don’t know how he will respond with players, but I feel for definite he has a hunger to impress.

“He has already drawn up some really impressive strike moves for back play. Just from that I can see he has the hunger to show his natural talents, and for how he wants the game to be played.”

The presence of both Wernham and Pewtner in the same technical area will be a further guarantee of the best player welfare practices at the Hurricanes.

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Head trauma is leading to an increasing number of players being forced to retire from playing in their prime.

Jonathan Thomas (Wales)

The back-row forward won 67 caps for Wales before retiring aged 32, having been diagnosed with epilepsy brought on by repeated head injuries.

Shontayne Hape (England)

The former England centre said the effects of repeated concussions reached the point where he regularly forgot his PIN. After retirement he wrote it was “incredibly tough dealing with the fact you are washed up in your early 30s”.

Ben Afeaki (New Zealand)

Just 27 when he was forced to end his playing career, after failing to recover from concussion. The prop forward was highly regarded and had been capped by the All Blacks.

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Given their respective experiences, each is likely to err on the conservative side if a player suffers a head injury, no matter the match situation.

Further to that, the Hurricanes have a partnership with Mediclinic. By the terms of the agreement, a medical response team will be present at every match the club play, from first XV to mini and youth level.

“It is safe to say for us our medical staff availability is just as essential as our strongest player,” Wernham said.

“It is clear that on the global scale this is now at the forefront of everyone's mind which is fantastic. The laws of the game have been changed, and the recommended protocols are further on than they ever have been before.

“Is this everywhere, however? I know the protocols and recommendations have been given, but who goes around the clubs and schools to assess that these measures are being met?

“For me as director of rugby what we constantly remind our players and ourselves is that rugby is not our major provider out here in Dubai.

“This is an amateur and grassroots level of competition - extremely competitive and a very high standard, yes, but it is not our be all and end all.”