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Concussion forces ex-All Black into retirement at the age of 26

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Former one-test All Blacks Dillon Hunt has been forced to retire from rugby at the age of 26 due to ongoing concussion symptoms.

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In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, Hunt revealed he has decided to retire from rugby after battling with symptoms brought on by his most recent concussion for more than a year.

That head knock, which came while playing for North Harbour against Bay of Plenty in the final round of the 2020 NPC, was one of many Hunt endured throughout his six-year professional playing career.

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However, after having returned to action too soon more often that not, as he did in that match after sustaining a head knock against Waikato eight weeks earlier, concussion symptoms have lingered with Hunt 12 months on.

At its worst, those symptoms include “headaches, just being in a complete fog where you can’t think”, to the point where he “can’t handle any sort of noise or light”.

It’s for that reason that Hunt has decided to hang the boots up to bring the curtain down on a highly-promising career that has ended far too prematurely than anyone would have liked.

“I’ve decided to retire because of these concussions,” Hunt told the New Zealand Herald. “I have to give it away. It’s just not worth it for me anymore.

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“One particular crash I had with my symptoms I thought I can’t be risking this or going back to something that could make all the symptoms worse again. I was just too vulnerable.

“At its worst it’s headaches, just being in a complete fog where you can’t think. You can’t handle any sort of noise or light. The fog doesn’t really leave.

“The specialists were all pretty supportive so that decision had to be made, really.”

News of Hunt’s retirement comes just weeks after a damning report that revealed that former All Blacks prop Carl Hayman joined a lawsuit against World Rugby after being diagnosed with early on-set dementia at the age of 41.

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Hunt also becomes the third All Black forced to retire due to injuries after Liam Squire (knee) and Nathan Harris (ankle) pulled the pin on their respective careers in recent weeks.

Hayman attributed his diagnosis to the multiple concussions and sub-concussions he endured throughout his playing days, which spanned from 1998 to 2015.

Hunt’s recount of his concussion and sub-concussion experiences in rugby paint a similar picture to the one illustrated by Hayman.

“I’d be looking at about 10 concussions [throughout his career] but there’s also thousands of other reasonable knocks. I was always weary of it,” he said.

“I had it in the back of my mind that it’s not good to be getting concussion after concussion but I always recovered pretty quickly prior to last year so I carried on until I wasn’t able to carry on.”

Hunt described the impact of his head knocks as “really scary”, enough so to call time on a playing career that saw him play at all levels of first-class rugby.

Renowned for his high work rate and dogged defensive abilities, Hunt began his career with Otago – where he studied in his first few years out of Auckland’s Westlake Boys’ High School – in 2015.

That same year, he featured for the world champion New Zealand U20 side before starring in his debut campaign for the Highlanders in 2017, which included an historic 23-22 victory over the British and Irish Lions in Dunedin.

Hunt’s standout performances in place of the injured James Lentjes earned him an appearance for the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Twickenham later that year.

10 days after that match, he made his debut for New Zealand against a French XV in Lyon, and made his full test debut for the All Blacks against Japan in Tokyo a year later following an impressive debut season for his native North Harbour in the NPC.

Hunt continued to play for the Highlanders until last year, but signed a two-year deal with the Blues that was meant to see him turn out for the Auckland-based franchise over the course of 2021 and 2022.

His debut for his new side never eventuated, though, as he instead watched on as the Blues beat the Highlanders to claim the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title at Eden Park in June.

With the support of the Blues coaching staff, Hunt has refused to lay blame on anyone else for his early retirement as he said it was his decision to return to action earlier than he should have.

Instead, Hunt, who says he is in a better place than he was a year ago, is focussing his time and energy on utilising his degree as a surveyor to work four times a week as he continues a return to normality.

While he remains unsure how long-lasting the effects of his concussions will be, Hunt said that he is grateful for the opportunities that rugby afforded him.

“There’s a lot of things to look forward to outside of rugby but I’m pretty stoked with what I managed to achieve in that time,” he told the New Zealand Herald.

“There’s a lot of things I would’ve like to have done – playing for the Blues, winning a Premiership with Harbour. But there’s plenty to look back on and be proud of.

“It’s pretty unique work and a lot of cool memories so I’ve still got those to hold on to.”

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