Jonny Macdonald and Taif Al Delamie are still associated with the sport. But just as the close friends warn others against excessive caution, they are wary themselves of suffering the consequences of playing again.
UAE rugby stars maintain healthy distance from sport years after promising careers cut short by concussion
Three and a half years is a long time in rugby. It feels even longer to be without it, though.
Since March 2014, Jonny Macdonald has been struggling to fill the void. It was then, after three concussions in the space of two months, he submitted to good sense and finally gave away playing the game he loved.
Macdonald is still arguably the finest talent yet produced in rugby on these shores. Born and raised in Abu Dhabi, he represented the Arabian Gulf at the Sevens World Cup in 2009. He went on to play varsity rugby at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, and was later selected to play for Scotland at the Hong Kong Sevens.
When that was taken away from him, aged 25 and with a bright future in the game apparently ahead of him, he was bereft.
For the next six months he did not even watch rugby on the television, so dejected was he that he couldn’t play anymore. The combination of the physical effects of head trauma, as well as the feeling of loss, brought on anxiety issues that required medication to suppress.
“Rugby was such an integral part of my life,” Macdonald said. “At that point, it wasn’t my livelihood, but it was my identity. That going away, coupled with the physical effects, prompted [anxiety].”
Macdonald had suffered repeated concussions in his junior career. Having moved to Hong Kong for work as well as to play rugby, he suffered three in as fast as a time as it was possible to safely pass the return to play procedure. There was no way of carrying on.
“It was affecting my day to day life, I couldn’t work, couldn’t be in a room with bright lights, I couldn’t function,” he said.
“As soon as it started to encroach on day to day life and my profession, because by this point I had realised playing rugby wasn’t going to pay the bills, it was time to take a step back.”
In addition to the anxiety, he suffered short-term memory loss, and moods swings totally out of keeping with his personality.
“Before I made the decision, my mum came over to Hong Kong to support me for a bit, and she noticed in that short time something had changed,” he said.
“For a week after the incident I couldn’t have a light on in the room. Anything bright and I would get a headache, spinning. It became too much.”
When he opted to hang up his boots, the true extent of concussive and subconcussive head trauma in rugby was not really known. Maybe it still isn’t, fully.
This was still a year before Bennet Omalu’s revelatory – and controversial – findings into chronic traumatic encephalopathy attained widespread public prominence, first in the form of a book and then the Golden Globe-nominated film Concussion.
In 2016, thanks largely to the neuropathologist Omalu’s work researching brain disease, around a thousand former NFL players affected by head trauma successfully sued the league for a billion dollars.
That was the seismic shock that prompted a number of collision sports into introspection. This year representatives from five sports – American football, rugby union and league, ice hockey, and Australian rules – met in Dublin to work together to find a safer way.
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What solutions they will find remain to be seen. What is for sure is, as is the nature of sport, they provide their participants with the sort of fix it is hard to kick.
Just ask Macdonald. His head injuries ended his career at 25. All this time later, his short-term memory is still affected.
And yet he still harbours serious hopes of a return to the playing field.
“That doesn’t go away,” said Macdonald, who has been back involved in the game in recent seasons in a coaching capacity, lately as an assistant to Henry Paul at Jebel Ali Dragons.
“I want to play now. I have been thinking about coming back. I had a go in a Twos game last season, just to help out.
“In terms of match fitness, I was awful, but it felt amazing to be playing again. I fell in love with it again immediately.
Macdonald's love for the game
“I finished the season thinking about trying to come back into it this year, but I just don’t think it is worth it.
“There is a chance I will come back, but as long as I can hold out, I want to. I’d rather not be a vegetable in 10 or 20 years' time.”
Coincidentally, Macdonald’s closest friend in the game suffered the same fate. Taif Al Delamie, who was also a part of the Arabian Gulf’s 2009 Sevens World Cup team, retired two years ago because of concussion, while still at his playing peak.
He has filled the time since by playing touch rugby, competing in adventure races, and supporting his old teammates from the sidelines. That is the closest he is going to get to the playing field, he says.
“I’ve really missed the physical side and the camaraderie of playing with a sports team,” Al Delamie said.
“Particularly in rugby, you really develop a strong bond with your teammates. I have certainly missed that aspect.
“I would really like to be playing, but I have made my peace with not being able to play competitive rugby any more.
“There have been a few close calls along the way. When Jonny went back and played, I thought, ‘Maybe I could play in the Dubai Sevens’. I did entertain those thoughts, but in hindsight, I’m delighted I have stayed strong.”
Al Delamie has seen Concussion, in which Will Smith plays the role of Omalu. He has read the studies that have revealed increasing evidence the quality and duration of lives of those who suffered repeated head trauma in sport can be diminished.
He cautions against the idea, though, that people should be inhibited from playing the sport they love.
“The more research I read, the happier I am with my decision to stop when I did,” Al Delamie said.
“Having said that, I don’t think you should get caught up reading too much into the studies, or by the film Concussion.
“There seems to be a huge surge towards how prevalent it is, and how lasting it is, but I think you have to take some of the media around it with a pinch of salt and not get too carried away.
“There’s millions of people who have played contact sport and lived to a ripe old age with no lasting effects.”
From our archives: Macdonald talks Dubai Sevens