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'Scary, saddening and unsettling': Former Lions team-mate Graham Rowntree reflects on Steve Thompson's dementia diagnosis



Old pals: Steve Thompson and Graham Rowntree on Lions duty

Old pals: Steve Thompson and Graham Rowntree on Lions duty

�INPHO/Billy Stickland

Old pals: Steve Thompson and Graham Rowntree on Lions duty

Rugby players often talk about making memories, so it was no surprise that Steve Thompson's shocking story of not being able to remember his own World Cup win has caused a real stir in the professional ranks.

WhatsApp groups involving cur­rent and former players lit up with the ex-England hooker's harrowing account on Tuesday, which came with the prospect of a group of recently-retired professionals taking World Rugby and national governing bodies in Wales and England to court.

For some, Thompson is a familiar old face from a bygone era, for oth­ers he's a friend and former team-mate who is dealing with early onset dementia and probable CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which he believes is a result of his time playing top-level rugby.

Munster forwards coach Graham Rowntree packed down with Thompson when he made his England debut in 2001, played with and against him many times and later coached him at inter­national level. The players launching legal action are his peers.

"It's scary stuff, yes, it is. It's more than scary, it's saddening," Rowntree, 49, said. "It's quite unsettling really. I played in that era, I had concussions.

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"I played alongside Steve, played against Steve, coached Steve. He's a mate. It's just horrible, it's proper saddening to hear that news. What can I say?

"We had some proper ding-dongs as well with Northampton-Leicester games. I played for the Lions with him and then ended up coaching him right up until he retired. He's a character, a good man, a good mate of mine."

Asked about his own experiences, Rowntree said: "I'm not going to go into that anymore. I think you detect how unsettling it is for a player like me who has played in that era to hear this and talk about it."

Despite his discomfort, the 57-cap prop believes the sport has learnt from his era.

"What I do know - the game has moved on. The players are looked after now, in particular concussion protocols, the way the game is ref­ereed in terms of zero tolerance for high shots, etc," he said.

"I have every confidence in how it's handled. All our protocols are in place as a club and a sport, I am very confident about that. But it's sad news."

That confidence is what current players cling to as they continue to navigate a sport of huge, violent col­lisions while hoping to get out the other end in one piece.

Leinster and Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw has personal experience of dementia and admits the Thomp­son tale has caught his attention.


"It's pretty worrying, you never want to read anything like that," he said. "Even watching the NFL film a few years ago with Will Smith, it was scary to see the ex-players that were suffering.

"It's not ideal. I think now the medical staff and World Rugby have definitely got way better rules and regulations around the process of head knocks.

"They have close monitors on every player in the game that they can pick up any guys that are struggling. I think we're in a way better place.

"I know myself it's scary enough. My grandfather, my mum's dad, suf­fered with dementia and it's scary."

Although there are no Irish players involved in the lawsuit currently, the game here is watching it closely to see how it all unfolds.

All the while the show goes on with players placing their trust in the law changes and processes introduced for their own protection.

Irish Independent