The pain game for M¯aori league play­ers

The Southland Times - - Sport - Car­men Parahi car­[email protected]

An alarm­ing num­ber of Ma¯ ori rugby league play­ers have been found to suf­fer from the early on­set of os­teoarthri­tis af­ter they re­tire.

Dr Trevor Clark has two new ti­ta­nium knees be­cause of his 12-year footy ca­reer.

Clark played pro­fes­sion­ally in Eng­land from 1983 to 1995, dur­ing which he re­ceived an hon­ours and masters de­gree ma­jor­ing in ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­ogy and sports psy­chol­ogy.

Five years ago, he started re­search­ing whether other Ma¯ ori play­ers had ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar is­sues he had. He fo­cused on Ma¯ ori be­cause no-one else had and on how many Ma¯ ori play the game.

His re­search is be­lieved to be the first Ma¯ ori rugby league study.

Clark sur­veyed 179 Ma¯ ori ama­teur and pro­fes­sional play­ers who’ve been re­tired be­tween one to 15 years. Twenty five of them were tested and 10 in­ter­viewed face-to­face to dis­cover what hap­pened when they hung up their boots.

Bod­ily pain was the worst rated of all the con­di­tions in the sur­vey. In a rat­ing sys­tem where 100 per cent is no pain and 50 per cent is the av­er­age, the play­ers had a neg­a­tive rat­ing across all age groups. For ex­am­ple, 25-34 year olds had a rat­ing of 35.6 com­pared to the New Zealand na­tional health stan­dard of 77.9 per cent.

The mas­sive dif­fer­ences sur­prised Clark. ‘‘The early on­set of os­teoarthri­tis was de­bil­i­tat­ing for them dur­ing their play­ing ca­reers and con­tin­ued to be worse in their re­tire­ment,’’ he said.

‘‘We’ve got to make sure play­ers look af­ter their bod­ies and they’ve re­turned to nor­mal func­tion be­fore they play again.’’

He says play­ers can be in­flu­enced by many fac­tors – in­clud­ing wha¯ nau, man­age­ment and fans – to re­turn too soon from in­jury.

‘‘It’s a bit of a pres­sure cooker sit­u­a­tion, the im­por­tance of the oc­ca­sion ramps ev­ery­thing up as well.’’

Clark cites this year’s NRL fi­nal when Syd­ney Roost­ers half­back Cooper Cronk played with a frac­tured sca­pula. It’s turned Cronk into a league le­gend.

‘‘Is that re­spon­si­ble? Hard to say. Did he get through the game? Yes. Did they win? Yes. So that made ev­ery­thing bet­ter? Prob­a­bly not, but they got the re­sult,’’ says Clark. ‘‘Let’s see what hap­pens to Cooper Cronk 10 years down [the track].’’

Clark rec­om­mends play­ers with in­juries run the full course of treat­ment. But it wasn’t just the phys­i­cal pain Ma¯ ori re­tirees were strug­gling with.

Con­cus­sion was an­other sig­nif­i­cant is­sue. Clark says three play­ers had to re­tire from the sport early be­cause of head knocks.

‘‘One of them had to change his whole vo­ca­tion,’’ says Clark.

‘‘He was a plas­terer by trade but ob­vi­ously he couldn’t stand on stilts, he couldn’t do any­thing above his head be­cause he would faint or was dizzy. So he had to learn a com­pletely new trade be­cause of con­cus­sion.’’

Clark has worked on other re­search in­volv­ing col­li­sion sports and con­cus­sion.

He is con­cerned pro­fes­sional clubs aren’t set­ting the right ex­am­ple. He’s of­ten asked by ama­teur play­ers why they have a longer stand-down com­pared to the pro­fes­sion­als. It’s three weeks for adults and four weeks for chil­dren.

Clark says there isn’t a sim­ple an­swer be­cause con­cus­sions are unique and spe­cific to an in­di­vid­ual, the ex­pe­ri­ences are not the same from player to player. Also, the con­di­tion and re­ac­tion to stim­u­lus of con­cussed pro­fes­sional play­ers is mon­i­tored daily by team doc­tors and man­age­ment.

‘‘Whereas ama­teur play­ers, they get looked at by a doc­tor who may not be a spe­cial­ist sports medicine doc­tor. Some­times they may even be talked into a re­prieve, ‘I’ll be all right doc, let me play’. We say to our ama­teur play­ers to ob­serve the min­i­mum stand down pe­riod. We can’t control what goes on at that level.’’

One of the high­est rated con­cerns raised by Ma¯ ori play­ers was the loss they felt when they re­tired. Clark says they suf­fer from with­drawal and it’s a sig­nif­i­cant loss. The mental health rat­ing was low across all age groups com­pared to the na­tional health stan­dards. For ex­am­ple, in the 35-44 year olds the rat­ing was 69.6 com­pared to 81.4 per cent.

‘‘It wasn’t just the play­ing of the game, it was be­ing in­volved, be­ing around the other play­ers that was a mas­sive loss for the play­ers, not just the run­ning around.

‘‘How do they mit­i­gate that? A lot of them go into coach­ing, train­ing, man­ag­ing any­thing to stay in­volved in the ac­tual sport.’’

He says the im­pact of with­drawal hurt the play­ers.

‘‘Prob­a­bly more so with pro­fes­sion­als, that sense of loss was greater be­cause they were adored by thou­sands of sup­port­ers.’’

Clark says it’s some­times hard to ac­cept, es­pe­cially for those who’ve just re­tired. It takes time for them to re­alise there are al­ter­na­tives to play­ing.

Chris Nahi felt the loss keenly when his pro­fes­sional four-year ca­reer ended with the Gold Coast Charg­ers in 1998.

‘‘It was the feel­ing of loss, the team-mates, the fame and for­tune,’’ says Nahi.

‘‘You thought that was your iden­tity, that’s who you re­ally were. That’s where the de­pres­sion kicks in.’’

Nahi had de­vel­oped a drug habit while he was play­ing. It turned into a full blown meth ad­dic­tion af­ter he lost his con­tract.

He be­came a drug dealer and sen­sa­tion­ally a po­lice fugi­tive in 2005. Nahi was even­tu­ally de­ported from Aus­tralia. He’s just opened up Vic­tory House in Whangarei, based on the res­i­den­tial ad­dic­tions cen­tre he at­tended in New South Wales.

Nahi says when he was play­ing for the Gold Coast they didn’t talk to him about life af­ter footy.

Clark says re­tire­ment plan­ning while play­ers are still in the game is the key to deal­ing with the with­drawal from footy. ‘‘If you haven’t got any­thing to go into that sense of loss is worse,’’ he says.

De­spite the risks in­volved with play­ing, Clark would never dis­cour­age any­one from giv­ing the sport a go.

Both of his sons have played rugby league. His youngest, Mitch, is still play­ing with the Castle­ford Tigers in Eng­land.

‘‘There’s a lot of pres­sure on play­ers to go out and per­form ir­re­spec­tive of whether their bod­ies are 100 per cent or not. It’s a dou­ble-edged sword,’’ he says.

‘‘En­joy it while you can. You’re a long time re­tired but they are the best days.’’

Trevor Clark, here play­ing for Brad­ford North­ern in 1993, says one of the high­est con­cerns for Ma¯ori play­ers was the loss they felt af­ter they re­tired.

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