January 4 wasn’t going to pass easily for Will Hurrell – it was that date last year when the Bristol midfielder got his head the wrong side of a tackle and caused the Welford Road stroke that was to end his career. His progress away from the sport has been exceptional. New job, encouraging health, upbeat attitude towards life.

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However, the one-year anniversary of the nightmare collision at Leicester – which resulted in the back of his brain smashing into the back of his skull and resulted in the bursting of the main artery to his frontal lobe – promoted some upsetting memories to come flooding back.

It was only natural. Hurrell was just eleven days shy of his 30th birthday when he made that life-changing tackle for Bristol, revelling at the time in what was his 43rd Premiership appearance in a circuitous career where he did the hard graft down the leagues, playing Championship with London Welsh, Rotherham and Doncaster and National level for Coventry and Stourbridge since coming through the ranks at the Leicester academy.

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New England call-up Harry Randall guests on RugbyPass All Access

Now it was one year gone from him and the emotion came rolling out. “I’m not going to lie. I have learned to get on with things after rugby but it did crop up,” he told RugbyPass. “I had a few bad days, there were tears and I actually broke down in front of the missus one day and just said I just miss playing so much, I’d do anything to go back and play. I really do feel like I was cut short when I was in the prime of my career.

“I have those days but they are getting fewer and further in between. It’s probably exacerbated a bit because of the lockdown but I really do miss it and I am so obsessed. I watch every game on the weekend. So especially when there is no rugby on like now I do find that tough as well. But I do have loads of positive stuff going and I feel really lucky to be in the situation I am in now.”

 

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That is wonderful to hear given how grim were the initial fears surrounding what had happened to Hurrell, who went on to announce his retirement in April over a Zoom call to a Bristol squad that by then were in lockdown. His memory wasn’t great around that time but he has since learned coping methods to spark it up again and move on positively.

Brain injuries became big news last month, though, following the launch of the dementia lawsuit against World Rugby and others. The concerning headlines could have prompted Hurrell to take a turn for the worse pondering how negatively life might turn out for him, but he is not wired that way, explaining the difference between what he suffered and what now, unfortunately, affects the likes Steve Thompson and many others.

“With all the head injury stuff going on now, I have had a lot of interest in people wanting to know my thoughts on it. The difference is mine is obviously an acute injury and they have been managed quite well by the RFU and everyone, World Rugby. But it’s the long-term stuff that we probably need to take a look at.

“With the lawsuits, it’s difficult to lay blame because we can’t say 30 years ago I had a concussion and carried on because the rules were you didn’t get pulled off for a HIA. Now is the time we can start looking at more research and development, looking at ways to try and mitigate the risk.

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“I remember when I started playing at 16, 17, we’d see guys get knocked out and we’d all laugh, he’s been knocked over again, whereas now everyone would be like, ‘oh God, is he alright? It was what it was, ‘You’re a big tough lad, carry on’.

“Quite a few people have the same sort of opinion as me, that we decided to play rugby. If you decide to be a UFC fighter and get punched in the head 400 times, you can’t go, ‘Right, I have got a head injury now, you need to look after me’. It’s kind of, ‘We understand the risks’.

“I get the ones where there has been some negligence – and there has been in some cases – but that is down to clubs and that is down to individual decisions in the clubs. That is not down to a worldwide issue, I don’t think.

“I’m hoping (there won’t be any long-term health issues) because I would still like to push on. I’m ambitious, I’m still very driven, I do want to do stuff and I probably would get frustrated if I started declining quite quickly.

 

“But mine is an acute injury, it was different and I had not had head injuries before. There was a little niggle in me last month, ‘Am I going to be struggling in 20 years to look after myself?’ But on the whole, I have been quite positive through it all.

“There is not like, ‘Let’s cut this out and that will stop all the head injuries’. One of the worst things I heard floated was a rule where you can only tackle below waist high. That is where most of the concussions are, caused by people’s knees.

“Yes, we have to get rid of the high tackles completely and they are really hot on red and yellow cards, but there is no silver bullet. The only thing I can think of is managing contact time during the week, managing lineout, maul and scrum time for forwards and managing how many games boys are playing, especially the international players. But aside from those little things, there is no silver bullet to say right, ‘This will stop these long-term injuries’.”

What has helped Hurrell get his mind around his own retirement was the reaction of the so-called rugby family beyond his own Bristol network, their interest in him having a morale-boosting effect to ensure he didn’t get stuck in a ‘why me?’ spiral. “Since I have had my injury the rugby community has been absolutely outstanding,” he said.

Hurrell Bristol tackle

Will Hurrell palms off Sale’s Johnny Leota in 2016 (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

“The networking that I have been able to do, the support I have had has been incredible. People like Andy Gomarsall straight away messaging me saying can I help you. I have been seeing Russell Earnshaw recently, talking about coaching development. Even Eddie Jones messaged me. Rob Baxter, I have been speaking to. The rugby community have rallied and I feel quite lucky that everyone feels like they are in this together.”

The question most asked of Hurrell these past twelve months is, of course, what happened that fateful day in the East Midlands with Bristol and what were the day-to-day repercussions? “Basically what I say is I explain the freak accident. I always explain it as punching above my weight, trying to melt a giant second row from Leicester and getting my head caught the wrong side, the brain impact caused the stroke and it just sort of deteriorated from there.

“I had to spend weeks with my mum and dad, them almost nursing me back as I was sleeping 16 hours a day and couldn’t do a whole lot. It was really about just getting myself well again and then once I got myself back to a stage where I was well, it was more about planning, what I can do going forward.

“There were a lot of hospital visits, seeing specialists. I saw this head injury specialist in Southmead and he was excellent. He’d only ever seen this injury twice which he described as a whiplash injury, my brain just went like that [he smacks his hands together loudly] into my skull and created a stroke. He said he had only seen it twice and both in kids.

“I still get stuck remembering some words and it really frustrates me because I can see it and I know what it starts with, but they are like minor things and a lot of stuff I have put in place is to manage it better. I have a book for everything now. I have a book for rugby, a book for work, a book for everything else, reminders all the time.

“The actual word stuff I have started reading a lot more and it has helped. I feel a lot better than when I retired. I was at a stage where I was probably further ahead than I was but when you actually started doing stuff, you were like, ‘Oh God, I’m struggling a bit here’.

“There are still check-ups and I’m still in contact with people. One thing I still suffer from every now and again is panic attacks which I never had before my head injury. For me, it’s just managing my workload. I’m quite a passionate bloke. I love when I get stuck into something but it’s just making sure I don’t get really worn down.”

It was October when Hurrell landed a new full-time job, becoming a director of leadership and management development at Blue Pencil, the legal recruitment company owned by Liam Mooney, the former Ireland A prop who was on the scene in the Premiership with London Irish when the sport first went pro.

“He’s great, a real entrepreneur type, I really like him. He has given me different options and different paths. I’m actually starting a Harvard leadership course at the end of the month. He has really been a good bridge because he understands rugby, he understands the things you do through when you retire.

“The recruitment side of the business has been next to none which is expected, there is a lot of redundancies and not much hiring, but he has gone down looking at other stuff like leadership and management which is great because that is something we can really add to, especially legal firms. I feel like I have really fallen on my feet with him.

“As I said, I do have the drops where I get a bit emotional but I manage that quite well now. In terms of training we bought a punchbag, we have a barbell and we work out here all the time. I do miss coaching. I was down at Plymouth Albion and that was going really well. We had the best session of our pre-season and then we had the lockdown. I was like, ‘No, we were flying’.

“This lockdown is a big wake-up call. I feel I took for granted a lot of stuff that I enjoy. Playing golf with my dad who has been huge since I had my stroke and retired. Absolutely loved it and immediately that is taken away. The gym is gone. Going out for beers with the missus is gone. Socialising is gone… it’s given me perspective on what we need to value, the time with our family and the time we spend doing the stuff we enjoy.”

Will Hurrell in action for England age-grade in 2008 (Photo Patrick Bolger/Getty Images)

That greater appreciation includes the enduring connection between Hurrell and Bristol. “I caught up with quite a few boys prior to lockdown, went to one of the games to do commentary with TalkSport. A bit weird going to Ashton Gate when it is empty, but I caught up with loads of boys and I’m still in contact with quite a few. I’d love to see them in semis again. They’re playing really well.

“I always loved rugby and always will. I say to everyone, I’d play professionally until I was 60 if I could. I’ll never stop watching it, never stop loving it and I do see coaching as something I can do long-term and really make an impact in.”

We can only wish him well with that ambition.

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