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'We've to create a culture where it's the norm to be honest about concussion' -- Kevin McLaughlin

The flanker’s career was ended by collisions not involving his head after he covered up the problem for almost a year.

KEVIN MCLAUGHLIN IS a lucky man, and he knows it well.

LeinsterÕs Kevin McLaughlin McLaughlin on his 'last ever away trip' in Toulon last weekend. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

His retirement from rugby just days after his 31st birthday was initially viewed as untimely. But the more he tells his story, the more it becomes clear that he got out just in time.

From November 2014, he just didn’t feel right. In the away draw to Treviso, the blindside took an elbow to the head and was knocked out cold. He returned four weeks later for a pre-Christmas inter-pro against Connacht, but from here on in, contacts that were once routine were leaving him in a haze.

It wasn’t just the big-match blows. Every session, every tackle bag left McLaughlin a little rattled, his bell was tolling, he just chose to ignore it.

McLaughlin chose not to act. He now accepts that he did the wrong thing for over a year in keeping it to himself, but when a tackle against Edinburgh early this season laid him out again, the problem could no longer be hidden from the Leinster medical team. It was another two impacts that did not feature McLaughlin’s head, yet he was out cold again.

“A lot of that was because I was out injured for seven months with a shoulder injury. So I was kind of hiding it from myself at the time,” the now former Leinster captain said at Sky Sports’ Dublin HQ yesterday.

I kind of feel there’s an onus on me to create that awareness out there now. As someone who’s been through it and wasn’t fully honest with themselves and the coaching staff for a period of time and then opened up and made the right decision.

“I want to make sure that’s ‘the right thing to do’ because the rugby environment is a macho environment. You get a calf tear and you get an MRI and it’s clear you’re injured, but a brain injury is very easy to hide a lot of the time.

“It’s very easy to say you’re fine and, you know, the only way we can prevent concussion becoming a big issue is through player honesty.”

There are important parts to be played from the levels above the field of play too, but this recently retired player is adamant that his was the biggest portion of responsibility.

“There’s no other way of doing it. We have to create a culture where it’s the norm for a player to be honest with themselves firstly and then be honest with the coaching staff about what they’re going through from a concussion point of view.”

Paul Wallace and Kevin McLaughlin Leinster v Toulon is live on Sky Sports 3 on Saturday from 5pm. The fixture is part of a bumper line-up on Sky Sports this festive season which includes European rugby, Premier League football and darts. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Encouragingly, McLaughlin reports that he can already see that culture taking hold in the professional game.

“I see huge movement in the right direction. I see guys now taking themselves off the pitch which I never would have seen before.

“I see guys putting their hands up and saying, ‘I don’t feel right for this weekend’, which I never would have seen before.

“And, for me, that’s a massive step in the right direction. Especially when it’s coming from some of the leadership figures, some of the older guys. Because you’ve got the Academy guys looking at them now and saying, ‘okay, so if I get a bang in the head or have a headache on the week of the game, I know I’m not right to play’. That’s now socially acceptable in this club. So now having a head injury is as important or is as big an issue as having a knee injury.

“It really is a cultural thing – the message I’m trying to get across is that it doesn’t matter how well-educated players are if they’re not honest with themselves about their symptoms and they’re not honest to the coaches.”

McLaughlin did the wrong thing when he began to feel what in hindsight are the tell-tale signs of lasting concussion. The chain of inactions, mistakes caused by a mix of a seven-month lay-off with a shoulder injury, an old school sensibility and a sense of duty to newly appointed head coach Leo Cullen.

Not because Cullen did anything other than encourage him to do what was best for his long-term health (once the extent of his concussion problem was revealed), but because having been named captain, McLaughlin desperately wanted to lead.

Kevin McLaughlin Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I suppose there’s an element of guilt there in that I was made captain. I was put in a leadership position, and especially because it was Leo’s first year as a head coach and he’s a good friend of mine, I wanted to do everything I could to support him.”

Even though that sense of guilt was misplaced, since retiring in late September McLaughlin has been able to make good on the promise. Through the World Cup period he remained heavily involved in Clonskeagh, mentoring his young successors in the pack and back-line and even overseeing line-out sessions to allow Cullen time to concentrate on working a groove into his new hot seat.

At the weekend The 31-year-old was with the squad in Toulon, a journey he admits was  ’an emotional’ experience as it was his last ever away trip with his team.

Between that and the new trans-Atlantic operations post McLaughlin will take up with Kitman Labs in January, the one-time Gonzaga stand-out hasn’t allowed himself much in the way of time off. But there’s a real relish to his voice when he promises to indulge himself before the year is out.

“The funny thing is I’ve kinda been kept busy, I’ve been saying yes to the kinda things  I wouldn’t have said yes to when I did play.

“I am trying to say yes to everything now I am not playing rugby. But I’ll make up for a lot this Christmas. There are lots of things I‘ll be doing that I haven’t done at Christmas for 10 Christmases and that I am really going to enjoy.

I am going to be able to meet my friend for a pint on a Thursday night and not have to worry about anything, and catch up with my mates when they come home from England and I must say I am looking forward to that.”

He’s lucky he’s in a position to be able to do it, symptom-free.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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