‘When people say you’ve got a Rugby World Cup medal I feel like a phoney. I can’t remember it’

Television: Rugby, Dementia and Me is a moving portrait of Steve Thompson, the former England hooker, whose years on the pitch damaged his brain

Rugby fans will have vivid memories of England’s 2003 World Cup victory, in which Clive Woodward’s smash-and-bash merchants bulldozed to victory over Australia. One person who doesn’t recall that win is Steve Thompson, which is curious, as he was on the pitch, playing for England, at the time.

“When people say you’ve got a World Cup medal I feel like a phoney,” the former England and Northampton Saints hooker says early in the moving, dignified documentary Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me (BBC Two, Wednesday, 9pm). “I can’t remember it. It’s why I am what I am now.”

What Thompson is now is a 42-year-old married father of four struggling with early-onset dementia. His years on the rugby pitch have left him with a damaged brain. Month by month, precious memories drain away. He worries that soon he will be unable to recall not only the Rugby World Cup but also the names of his wife and kids.

The thesis of Rugby, Dementia and Me is that Thompson and others were sacrificial lambs when rugby went professional In the late 1990s. With full-time training, players bulked up – and so the hits to their heads and necks become far more damaging than had previously been the case. Training was more punishing, too, with players such as Thompson spending hour after hour bashing against scrum machines.

READ MORE

“They had to create training programmes from scratch,” says Thompson. “It was a bit like the Wild West. People would say, ‘Look at the size of your head –use it.’”

Thompson is one of many players taking legal action against rugby’s governing bodies. In Ireland, three players, including two former internationals, have lodged High Court proceedings against the IRFU. They allege they were inadequately protected from the possibility of concussion leading to long-term serious injury.

I never wanted to leave the pitch, even if I was knocked out

Concussion has already become a flashpoint in American football, where the NFL has agreed a $1 billion (€1.01 billion) settlement to provide for players who had suffered brain injuries. But rugby players make nowhere near the money American-football stars do; it is bracing to see Thompson living in a modest house, worrying about providing for his family.

Rugby players generally have to keep working when their career ends, but Thompson was forced to give up his office position as his memory deteriorated. He now works in water repair, after an old rugby contact helped him find a job.

With the issue finally being taken seriously, there is now a greater awareness of the dangers posed by concussions. Alas, that is too late for Thompson and players of his generation. ”I never wanted to leave the pitch, even if I was knocked out,” says his former England teammate Lewis Moody. “We had a protocol for concussion – it was fairly sketchy.”

The temptation in Ireland is to stereotype rugby players as privileged pranksters swanning through life with their shirt collars up, a freshly poured Heino perpetually at their elbow. Thompson, though, grew up in a hard-knock housing estate in the English midlands and says that without rugby he may have gone down a troubled path.

But, although the sport has given him everything, it now threatens to rob him of even the basics of a happy life. He talks to a psychologist about suicidal thoughts. He says he is staying around for his family – though he knows they may soon be strangers to him. “It’s becoming normal life, which is weird,” he says of the memory loss. “Every week a little bit more slips away.”