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'Really sad': All Blacks react to Carl Hayman's dementia diagnosis

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images)

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All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree has described former All Blacks star Carl Hayman’s early-onset dementia diagnosis as “really sad”.

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A report by The Bounce revealed on Wednesday that the 41-year-old has been diagnosed with the condition, as well as probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), following an 18-year professional rugby career.

During that time, Hayman played 45 tests for the All Blacks between 2001 and 2007, and featured for the Highlanders, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon and Otago at club and provincial level in New Zealand, England and France.

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In the report, Hayman attributes his diagnosis to the numerous sub-concussions he endured throughout his career and has joined 150 former professional players in a lawsuit being filed against World Rugby, among other governing bodies in rugby.

The lawsuit claims the governing bodies failed to protect players from the risks caused by concussions and sub-concussions, despite possessing the knowledge and evidence to do so.

Hayman also outlined the day-to-day struggles he has faced since retiring as a player six years ago as a result of his diagnosis, such as persistent headaches, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts, all of which contributed to a suspended prison sentence in France after he admitted to charges of domestic violence.

Speaking to media from Rome ahead of the All Blacks’ upcoming clash against Italy at Stadio Olimpico on Sunday [NZT], Plumtree said the revelation of Hayman’s diagnosis came as a shock.

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“Really sad. Carl, I think he’s a 45-test All Black, done a lot for New Zealand rugby, and it’s just a real sad situation if he’s struggling with dementia at such an early age,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of empathy for that. I know that he’s been a pretty popular person in this environment, so it’s not nice to hear about those stories.”

Plumtree said that while he and Hayman both hail from Taranaki, they don’t know each other personally, but that didn’t detract from the sadness he and the rest of the All Blacks playing squad and management felt while reading the report.

“He was a bit before me. I was overseas when he was playing,” Plumtree, who was coaching in Wales when Hayman first broke onto the scene and coached against him while in charge of Wellington and the Sharks between 2001 and 2007, said.

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“I know he was a good Naki boy, a farmer as well. They’re all my roots as well, so, like I say, when Joe [Locke, All Blacks media manager] enlightened me on it tonight, it wasn’t a nice article to read. None of the boys would enjoy an article like that.”

The long-standing issue of player welfare has been pertinent within professional rugby for a number of years, and Plumtree insisted the All Blacks have introduced measures in recent times to reduce the risk of head injuries.

“It has changed a lot. There’s a greater awareness around it in all parts of an organisation, from the top level right down through to the other coaches.

“We’re trying to minimise accidents around the head as much as we can. We know the game’s under pressure to make sure we do that.

“We’ve got a responsibility as coaches to make sure that we do that to make sure the game is safe so that my kids growing up want to play.

“I probably shouldn’t say my kids because my kids are pretty much already grown up, but someone else’s kids [who are] a bit younger than me, so we’ve got a responsibility to make sure that the game is safe and the parents want the kids to play.”

Plumtree explained how the exactly the All Blacks have implemented those changes, with limited contract training based on the physicality of the previous week’s match among the various measures he and his colleagues have implemented for their players.

The distance between players in tackling and breakdown drills has also been closed to minimise the collision impact in training, as has the use of tackle shields and pads rather than players.

“Obviously we’ve got some pretty good science around measuring all of that, so if the bodies are still sore Monday-Tuesday, definitely we’ll look after them and, by Thursday, we know they’ll be starting to come right and the intensity of training goes up a bit,” Plumtree said.

“What we do at training is make sure that we minimise the risk around certain parts of the game. The breakdown isn’t contested as what you’d see in a normal game, the tackle is not as contested, so we’re minimising the risk the whole time during the week.

“Where we like to amp up the contact is in a shortened space, if you like, so we get the technique right but without the wider spaces where an accident could potentially happen.

“Easiest way for me to explain that is, if you’re making a tackle, it’s a metre away and not five metres away, so we know the collision is not as great, but the technique can still be perfect.

“It’s the same at the breakdown. When we’re practising clean out work, it’s not a cleaner coming in from four, five metres away, it’s a cleaner coming in from two metres away.

“He can still practice good technique, and, generally, on a body when it comes to a cleanout, I’ve got a pad designed that looks like a player, but it’s actually a big pad, and the players can practice perfect cleanout work [against] a pad that is designed like a poacher or a jackler.

“We’re actually not using a body for that type of practice, so, again, it’s all designed to look after the layers at practice, but it’s also designed to practice perfect technique.

“I think as professional coaches, we’ve got that responsibility [to protect the players]. As I said earlier, I think it’s so important. The head is a protected place and, certainly, those types of conversations are talked about all the time within the All Blacks.”

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