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Former Kiwis league player is NZ's first case of national rep with CTE

Liam Napier,
Publish Date
Fri, 3 May 2024, 7:04am

Former Kiwis league player is NZ's first case of national rep with CTE

Liam Napier,
Publish Date
Fri, 3 May 2024, 7:04am

New Zealand has its first case of an international sporting representative to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - the neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma.  

The family of the player in question do not wish to have his identity made public at this time, but a paper released by the New Zealand Medical Journal on Friday states he represented New Zealand in rugby league during the 1960s and early 1970s, before retiring in his late 30s. He also played rugby union from 9 years of age and participated in high school boxing.  

By the end of his career, he is believed to have played dozens of matches for the Kiwis - both tests and non-internationals. He is also thought to have been a member of the famed 1971 team that savoured away test series wins against Great Britain (2-1) and France (2-0).  

During his sporting career, he sustained multiple “minor” head knocks - one of which resulted in hospitalisation.  

At the age of 64 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease based on motor features. At 70, he experienced other cognitive difficulties including apathy and low mood. Dementia developed over the latter part of his life, requiring hospital-level care.  

He died in 2021 aged 79, and his family subsequently donated his brain to Auckland University’s human brain bank.  

After postmortem examination, researchers found the Kiwis International suffered from high-stage CTE which causes irritability, impulsivity, depression and memory decline. He is, therefore, the first New Zealand sporting international to be diagnosed with CTE.  

There are three other publicly known cases of sporting-induced CTE in a New Zealand context. They include Justin Jennings, who died in the United States in 2020 aged 50 after a 22-year rugby union career. His diagnosis was made by Boston University’s sports brain bank. 

Geoffrey Joseph Cooper, an amateur rugby union player who represented 12 clubs across three continents during a 57-year career, is another to have suffered from dementia and CTE. 

Former Māori All Black Billy Guyton is the most high-profile case of confirmed CTE in New Zealand. After his suicide last year, his family donated his brain to Auckland’s sporting brain bank that was formed in 2019.  

Auckland Hospital pathologist Clinton Turner issued the CTE diagnosis for Guyton - and the former Kiwis representative the NZ Medical Journal has released its study on, with Australian-based Michael Buckland confirming the findings.  

Former All Blacks prop Carl Hayman is also suffering the debilitating effects of probable CTE after estimating he took 150,000 head knocks during his career. CTE diagnosis can, however, only be confirmed postmortem. 

Auckland University professor Maurice Curtis, one of six authors of the NZ Medical Journal paper, outlined the importance of the latest case of CTE involving the former Kiwis international. 

“It’s significant because up until this case has come out, there have been a lot of diagnosed cases from other sporting codes but relatively few from rugby league and rugby union, particularly in a New Zealand context,” Curtis said. 

“It’s important so that the extent of the problem can be identified here. Having medical experts that can support the diagnosis of this, even if it’s postmortem, is really important.” 

Auckland University professor Maurice Curtis says it is really important brains are donated to the bank so more can be learned about the effect of head trauma.Auckland University professor Maurice Curtis says it is really important brains are donated to the bank so more can be learned about the effect of head trauma. 

In a seminal 2023 study of 631 donated brains from NFL athletes in the US, 71 per cent had CTE. The NZ Medical Journal states CTE rates of 9 to 31.8 per cent in contact sport participants have been reported in brain bank cohorts. 

Earlier this year, a retrospective statistical study, led by the Auckland University and funded by World Rugby and the New Zealand Rugby Foundation, projected a higher risk for rugby players of brain diseases such as dementia. 

“Because we haven’t been collecting the brains of people who have repetitive head injuries, we haven’t been able to see the problems that are arising in our population. If you look at the Boston University brain bank, there’s more than 1000 cases there of people who have mainly played NFL, and the repetitive head injuries have become evident through their diagnosis of CTE,” Curtis said. 

“This study is a positive step because only when you start doing research on conditions like this can you affect positive change. Whether that’s by being the encouragement required to make changes to the game or just making sure research is available to those who find themselves with probable CTE, that’s a really important step. 

“Also, if you don’t know if you have CTE, in the New Zealand population it’s very difficult to teach or train medical doctors how to manage those things.” 

Acceptance of the cause and effect of repetitive head knocks are slow-moving in New Zealand, but as more cases emerge through intertwined brain banks in Toronto, Boston, Australia and here, all contact sporting codes will be forced to grasp their role in attempting to minimise the impacts. 

“A small country like New Zealand might expect to get a couple of cases of CTE per year through donations to the brain bank, but we are linked up to make an international effort that can much more rapidly accelerate brain research than waiting for us to have 10, 20, 30 cases here.” 

In this specific case, the family of the former Kiwis international donated his brain to seek confirmation of their suspicions. 

“They were well aware of the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and some dementia. They were more than happy to donate the brain on the basis of helping to understand those, but they did wonder about whether there was evidence of CTE or whether the sporting history might be playing into the pathology this person had. The repetitive head injuries may contribute to the Parkinson’s disease this person had, but CTE has a different appearance in the brain,” Curtis said. 

“They were pleased to hear there were some definitive outcomes and they were not overly surprised that there was CTE diagnosed. They knew that was a possible/likely outcome.” 

Liam Napier has been a sports journalist since 2010, and his work has taken him to World Cups in rugby, netball and cricket, boxing world title fights and Commonwealth Games. 

This article was originally posted on the NZ Herald here. 

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