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'I kind of ran away from it initially' - Fogarty fronts up on concussion issue

The former Leinster hooker says players are ‘never going to want to come off’ after knocks to the head.

IF ANY RUGBY player is qualified to speak about concussion in the sport, Heineken Cup-winning former hooker John Fogarty is top of the list.

John Fogarty Fogarty is an Elite Player Development Officer with Leinster. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The ex-Munster, Connacht and Leinster man was sadly forced to retire from the game in 2010 due to severe difficulties brought about by repeated concussions.

At the age of 33, Fogarty heeded medical advice to hang up his boots as numerous head injuries led to blinding headaches, anxiety, and other side effects. A concussion suffered against Treviso in a Magners League clash in September 2010 spelled the end.

Fogarty shared his alarming story with Brendan Fanning of the Sunday Independent at the time of his retirement, indicating that “there will be others to follow. This isn’t going away. At least not quietly.”

As it has transpired, the concussion issue has not gone away; far from it. Five years later, head injuries in rugby are more of a talking point than ever.

Just last week, 26-year-old Cardiff Blues back row Rory Watts-Jones was forced to retire due to a concussion-related injury, while the furore around George North’s head injury against England on the opening weekend of the Six Nations is still simmering.

Fogarty’s story since his concussion-enforced retirement has been happy at least, and he now works as forwards coach for Leinster’s U20 and ‘A’ sides, as well as acting as Ireland U20s scrum coach.

He is highly rated as a coach of outstanding potential, and it is pleasing that rugby is now giving something back to a man who gave so much of himself to the game.

John Fogarty and Trevor Horgan Fogarty [left] with Trevor Hogan after the 2009 Heineken Cup success. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fogarty admits he found the topic of concussion difficult to address when he was first dealing with his retirement, a sentiment that is easy to understand.

“I kind of ran away from it initially,” the former front row tells The42. “When I retired I got all these phone calls to go on the radio and I didn’t want to do it because I was in the middle of it. I couldn’t really talk about it because it was tough.

“I just ran away from it to be honest, stayed away from it as much as I could. My agent said it was a big topic, but I said I’d rather not talk about it, just get over it first. Ever since, I haven’t really come back into it, but it’s become this huge thing and rightly so.”

Fogarty feels the increased awareness of concussion and its damaging effects is positive, pointing out that it seems likely many head injuries were missed in the past. However, rugby still has a way to go in avoiding the unacceptable high-profile incidents.

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“There’s way more awareness now and that’s really good,” says Fogarty. “It’s still in the game, but it was probably always in the game. As long as the George North stuff doesn’t happen regularly, players come off the field instead, that’s good.

When you see that on the big stage, that’s not totally the right direction.

“You’ve got to be aware of it. It’s obviously going in the right direction, there’s so much awareness. In the clubs and schools… I’ve got a cousin down in the Munster U19s, my brother [Denis] is playing in France, you see the awareness everywhere.

“That’s all very, very positive. It’s just disappointing when you see high-profile stuff, that is disappointing. As a player – this seems stupid – but you’re never going to want to come off. I certainly never wanted to come off and I don’t think a player nowadays would want to come off. They’re so attached to it all.”

Having suffered so horrendously in his post-retirement days with those crippling headaches and other concussion-related ailments, how is Fogarty now? Have the side effects of repeated head injury subsided?

John Fogarty Fogarty is now working with the Ireland U20s as a scrum coach. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“It’s alright, yeah,” answers Fogarty. “It’s grand; I wouldn’t say that I’m 100% great, you’d get headaches every now and again and at different times I’ll go and see someone to straighten the head out or whatever. It’s not perfect.

“Every now and again you get a few things and you think ‘Oh Christ, I hope this is not related’ but they usually clear. In the main, it’s good; not perfect but good.”

Fogarty’s own experiences with concussion make him more aware of possible damage to the players under his watch in a coaching capacity. The 37-year-old points out that every coach watches out for the signs, but admits his is a heightened awareness.

Ireland U20s recent meeting with Italy saw wing Greg O’Shea take a knock to the head and Fogarty immediately reacted. The Shannon flyer was instantly replaced and didn’t return to the field of play.

I’ve first-hand experience of getting knocked out and knowing what it’s like. It was Greg’s first start and he was playing really well in the game.

“I could see him getting clipped on the side of his head and straight away I was telling the other coaches ‘Greg got clipped, Greg got clipped.’

“You would have a naturally heightened awareness when you see someone getting hit. If you saw someone stumble a bit you’d ask them if they’re ok, if they can sleep. I’ve had those conversations with academy players and even professional players.

“Guys get knocked out, and you might ask them how things are, ask them if the sky is too bright, is the banging in the gym wrecking their head.”

Check out The42 tomorrow morning for more with John Fogarty, as he talks about his transition into the coaching world and learning from the likes of Joe Schmidt, Michael Cheika and Declan Kidney.

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Murray Kinsella

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