Bat­tered Adam finds refuge as a ref­eree

The Rugby Paper - - European Challenge Cup - PE­TER JACK­SON

Adam Hughes had his fu­ture planned out. Once his ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional rugby player had run its course, he would put his pi­lot’s li­cence to use and work for a com­mer­cial air­line.

All that changed as a con­se­quence of what hap­pened at Franklin’s Gar­dens on Sun­day March 22, 2015, dur­ing Ex­eter’s An­glo-Welsh Cup fi­nal against Sara­cens. The Chiefs’ Welsh cen­tre took a blow that oblit­er­ated ev­ery frag­ment of his mem­ory of a thrilling fi­nal.

“That was the start of the end,” he says. “I have no rec­ol­lec­tion what­so­ever of the match. I don’t know what caused the dam­age. Some­times with con­cus­sion it’s not so much con­tact with the head as the col­li­sion it­self.

“The brain moves with­out head con­tact. It took months and months for me to re­cover. In my re­hab I was stuck at the ex­er­cise stage. When­ever I’d ex­er­cise, the symp­toms kept com­ing back – nau­sea, a gen­eral feel­ing of be­ing un­well and mem­ory loss.

“Short-term, that was re­ally bad for quite a few months. Dur­ing one of my re­cov­ery pe­ri­ods from a later con­cus­sion I’d stud­ied for three months in prepa­ra­tion for an exam on a fi­nan­cial course. I found I couldn’t re­mem­ber a thing and that left me no op­tion but to start from scratch again.”

Hughes never played for Ex­eter again. He went home to New­port and re­joined the Drag­ons only to suf­fer a fur­ther con­cus­sion in a PRO14 match against Ul­ster in the open­ing weeks of last sea­son and an­nounced his re­tire­ment at the end of it, aged 27.

A few days ago an­other 27-year-old Welsh cen­tre, Ben John for­merly of the Ospreys, suf­fered the same fate. That cou­pled with the fa­tal­i­ties in France and re­newed calls from the play­ers’ union for pre-emp­tive ac­tion lends a rel­e­vance to Hughes’ case his­tory.

Neu­ro­sur­geons found two ma­jor trauma scans on his brain. “The neu­ro­sur­geons were very good,” Hughes says. “They give you the hard facts based on the ev­i­dence and the hard facts were that I had some scar­ring on the brain from pre­vi­ous con­cus­sions.

“I had a MRI scan at the Queen El­iz­a­beth hos­pi­tal in Birm­ing­ham. I was in the scan­ner for one hour 35 min­utes, flat on my back, not able to move a mus­cle. It was pretty hor­ren­dous but I could not have been in the hands of bet­ter peo­ple. They were bril­liant.

“I was 27. You think you have at least five years left, five years in which to give it a go. The Drag­ons were un­der new own­er­ship with a new coach but then com­mon­sense comes to the fore.

“You think about the ev­i­dence and come to a rea­son­able de­ci­sion. They didn’t say, ‘stop play­ing’, but they did say, ‘this is not go­ing to get any bet­ter’.

“Ev­ery con­cus­sion gets worse than the one be­fore. It’s the snow­ball ef­fect. My thresh­old level was re­duc­ing. I was al­most run­ning into peo­ple.

“I qual­i­fied as a pi­lot when I was 21 but ob­vi­ously that’s all changed be­cause of the con­cus­sion. Apart from that, rugby was all I’ve done all my life from the age of 16 and to stop do­ing it was tough.”

An U20 in­ter­na­tional who played at the 2010 Ju­nior World Cup in a Wales back divi­sion along­side Dan Big­gar, Scott Wil­liams, Ash­ley Beck and Lloyd Wil­liams, Hughes does not al­low the con­cus­sion trau­mas to sour his view of the game.

“I think rugby is do­ing as much as it can to re­duce the dan­ger,” he says. “When it comes to preven­tion, we’re al­most lead­ing the way. We are so much more ed­u­cated on the sub­ject now than we were a few years ago.

“There’s al­ways a dan­ger that the neg­a­tives will be pushed to the fore in­stead of the pos­i­tives. Clubs are now do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to en­sure that the play­ers are re­ally well looked af­ter.”

Hughes, an ex­ec­u­tive with the New­port-based Niche Sports spe­cial­is­ing in fi­nan­cial ad­vice for pro­fes­sional sports peo­ple, is still in­volved in the game, as a ref­eree.

“You will never re­place that feel­ing be­fore a match, of run­ning out onto the pitch with your mates, of the good times af­ter matches,” he says. “I am try­ing to re­place that through my ref­er­ee­ing. I find it in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing.

“There is so much more to the game from a ref­eree’s per­spec­tive. It gives you a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of their dif­fi­cul­ties and maybe, as an ex-player, you get a lit­tle more re­spect.

“I’ve had a cou­ple of cases of play­ers who’ve taken blows to the head. An­other told me dur­ing a game that he wasn’t feel­ing right. In all cases I in­sist that they go off and stay off for the rest of the match and make a com­plete re­cov­ery.”

Like every­one else, Hughes can only hope that the high­est pro­file cur­rent vic­tim of con­cus­sion, Leigh Half­penny, will be cleared to re­turn at some stage dur­ing the Six Na­tions.

“Leigh is an in­cred­i­bly brave player,’’ says Hughes. “We can only cross our fin­gers that he’s back be­fore too long. You just don’t know…’’

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Ca­reer cut short: Adam Hughes in ac­tion for New­port Gwent Drag­ons

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