The 29-year-old Scotland international made the decision to retire this week, having received specialist advice from a neurologist with regard to past head injuries.
Once more the spectre of concussion haunts rugby, but, in this instance, it is at least encouraging to see that the correct protocol was followed. Whilst it is a travesty Denton has been forced to retire so early, it is a scenario preferable to him returning to the pitch and further endangering his life.
Denton himself seems to have recognised the risks he faced, stating, “my actual reaction at the time my neurologist told me it was no longer a good idea to play rugby, to be honest, was a bit of relief.”
“This had been building up inside of me for four to five months.” He went on, “I knew there was a strong possibility that this moment was coming. By the time I got to it, I had been through all the emotional highs and lows, so I was prepared for it.”
“Of course, it is devastating that my rugby career is ending. After a few years where I had a series of injuries, I had got myself back into a position where I felt, physically and mentally, that I could play the best rugby of my career.”
The potential for serious long term neurological damage forced Denton to reconsider his future, and the disorienting side effects of severe concussion only reinforced the immediacy of the threat.
“Since the injury I have woken up every morning with pressure in my head and visual disturbances and not really knowing what is going on.”
As an individual who has suffered from similarly intense concussions, and the ‘visual disturbances’ (akin to hallucinations) Denton refers to, I can empathise, and am happy to see the correct decision has been made.
Looking forward, and assessing the future of the game however, can this physical and mental attrition be sustainable? Can it be right that a 29 year old has been forced to quit the game he loves because of serious threats to his mental stability? What does this say about modern rugby?
All these questions remain as pertinent as ever, but solutions are equally evasive. Concerted efforts are being made to lower tackle heights by referees at all levels, but the tackle is just one facet of the game and is unlikely to wholly eradicate concussion issues (even if it is a welcome move).
Players, Jim Hamilton in particular, have suggested that they are just as likely to be concussed from a head on knee or head on a hip collision as they are a high tackle. The problem is not necessarily where collisions are taking place on the body, but they force with which they occur.
Other law trials have been designed to increase open space, the pace of the game and so therefore player fitness (thus forcing players to drop some size), such as the 50:22 rule and reducing the number of substitutions, show the right issues are being addressed by the powers that be.
Nevertheless, the breakdown remains a problem; the height that players are flying into one another, in shoulder on head or shoulder on neck collisions, is endangering player welfare. Resolving this is likely to be the key. Likewise, players get so little rest throughout a season, what with the relentless schedules of club and international rugby, a state of affairs that cannot be healthy.
Dave Denton is an excellent player, whose career has sadly been cut short. We should not ignore the wider lessons from his career, which speaks to a sport grown oversized and obsessed with success through power. People’s health is at risk. Let’s not allow the fun and festivity of the World Cup distract us from the real dangers at hand.
Written by Joe Ronan