Matt Dawson enjoyed plenty of success in his rugby career but his mum could hardly bear to watch any of it.
Lois Dawson rarely missed any of her son’s matches, but she was not watching out of a love of the game. There was little interest in who won or lost. She wanted to be there in case her son got hurt.
Like many rugby players, Dawson did get hurt. To such an extent that he cannot always remember the circumstances of how and has to turn to former team-mate and best friend Paul Grayson for the details.
While playing for Northampton against Harlequins, the scrum-half received the ball off a line-out and was immediately smashed to the floor as another player’s arm hit him across the head.
The next thing Dawson remembers is waking up in hospital with his mum at his side. He immediately asked what the score had been.
Ten seconds later he asked again. And again. And again, forgetting each time that he had asked the same question only moments before.
Things went on like this for an hour and Dawson says it “distressed his mum hugely”. It was one of a vast number of concussions the 47-year-old suffered in his 15-year career.
He believes he was concussed once a year in matches and up to four times a year in training, and it was concern over these injuries that kept his mum coming to games.
“She was very proud of me and loved the travel and pride that went with it but she couldn’t stand watching,” the former England captain says.
“After I retired she openly admitted that she really didn’t enjoy it and that she didn’t tend to watch the games, she would just watch me.
“She wouldn’t be able to tell you how the game went or who scored tries, it would just be if I got knocked out, she would know about it.”
‘My short-term memory is not great’
Unsurprisingly, the concussions still have an impact on Dawson’s life now. Movement in his neck is restricted – but more concerning are the possible mental effects.
The former British and Irish Lion says his short-term memory has suffered.
“I have to be very conscious of re-reading things and writing notes down,” he explains.
“It never used to be that bad. Far too frequently I wouldn’t know the details of games I played in and someone would tell me, then I remembered it.
“If you talk to any of my coaches I was always about the detail. That started to disappear a bit.”
One incident made him fly into such a rage that Grayson, who made his international debut alongside the scrum-half in 1995 and played with him for 11 years at Saints, thought Dawson was going to punch him.
Dawson had taken a hit to the head in a tackle and was told to go off. Grayson, watching from the stands, saw his friend walk down the tunnel and soon heard loud bangs coming from the changing rooms below.
“I went in to see if he was alright,” Grayson recalls.
“I thought he was going to punch me because he was so enraged and he wouldn’t normally get like that.
“He was going off on one in the changing rooms about his girlfriend at the time. I’m trying to answer his questions about his relationship and it was quite difficult because it didn’t matter what I said, he would become more and more enraged.
“As far as I was concerned I was talking to my mate who was wildly emotional and angry and I’ve got no idea that had anything to do with a bang on the head.
“One symptom of concussion is that you have an angry and aggressive demeanour about certain things. But I didn’t know anything about concussion then.”
‘My introduction to concussion was as bad as it gets’ – Grayson
Grayson had his share of near-misses too, playing in the days before rugby became professional.
In an amateur game for Waterloo aged 20 the fly-half, now 48, kicked a penalty to take his side ahead. When play restarted he went to tackle a prop and was knocked out.
The last thing Grayson remembered was the penalty kick but when he lost consciousness he swallowed his tongue, blocking his airways and causing him to go into a convulsive fit.
Being an amateur game, there was no medical provision but thankfully one of his team-mates, Mike Hayton, was a doctor.
Thinking quickly, Hayton grabbed a thick plastic straw from a drinks bottle and used it to open Grayson’s airways, saving his life.
“My next memory was coming round lying on a table in the changing room, the game having finished,” the former England fly-half says.
“I went to hospital, was under observation overnight and that was that. Introduction to concussion. Just about as bad as it could get.
“I tried to have a jog about a week after that. My brain felt heavy, bruised and painful. I felt weird and sick.
“It does feel scary now to think what the impact of that could have been.”
With World Rugby streaming old World Cup matches during the coronavirus pandemic, changes in the game since Dawson and Grayson were playing have been brought into sharp relief.
Fans on social media are quick to point out that games from a decade ago are filled with the kinds of tackles that saw Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini sent off at the 2019 edition of the tournament.
Rugby is still a dangerous game of course – in April Bristol Bears centre Will Hurrell retired after suffering a “probable stroke” due to a “nasty knock” in a Premiership game – but rugby’s organisers are trying to reduce the risks.
The Head Injury Assessment protocol – a concussion diagnosis and management tool – was launched in 2014, and World Rugby issued new guidance on high tackles four months before the 2019 World Cup, leading to fewer concussions at the tournament.
‘They told me my career was over in 2002’ – Dawson
Dawson has been involved in discussions on the issue before. When a fan shared a video of Springbok Corne Krige’s dangerous tackle on the scrum-half back in 2002, Dawson admitted he feared the long-term consequences of such brutal collisions.
But Krige’s physicality that day had short-term consequences too. After the match Dawson felt numbness in his thumb and forefinger and went to see a specialist.
Less than 12 months before a World Cup that he and Grayson would go on to win with England, Dawson was told he had degenerative discs in his neck and was never going to play rugby again.
He went straight from the doctor’s to Grayson’s house, where he “completely lost the plot”.
“I broke down,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. They had just told me my career was over.
“That was one of the lowest points of my career.”
Dawson got a second opinion, then a third and was told he could continue but would have to “make sure he didn’t get hit round the head again”.
“Now, you would think, ‘why would I risk carrying on?’” he adds. “But when you’re a year away from playing in the World Cup and that’s the dream…”
Now, Dawson does not have to endure the things he put his mum through because neither of his two young sons, Alex and Sami, play rugby.
But Grayson’s experiences have not put him off encouraging his three children to take up the sport.
James Grayson, Dawson’s godson, is a rising star for Northampton while Ethan plays for England Under-18s and twin brother Joel is in the Saints academy.
And though Grayson admits his “heart is in his mouth” occasionally when it looks like one of them might be hurt, he believes the changes made by World Rugby mean his children are playing a safer game than he did.
“It’s not scary having kids play rugby because they are trying to lessen the impact of concussions and the incidences with the way the game is refereed and the way players are taught,” he explains.
“That is a very positive step. There should be less and less serious concussions.
“It’s an inevitable consequence in a contact sport that accidents will happen, but if the game is refereed in a certain way then I’m more confident that it’s a safer game to play.”