Concussion in rugby: Matt Scott opens up on ‘horrendous’ daily headaches

Edinburgh's Matt Scott speaks to the media. Picture:
Edinburgh's Matt Scott speaks to the media. Picture:
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Sport is by its nature a short career. A well-worn cliche but evidently a point of fact. A brief window of youth, vigour and talent which compels viewers of all ages to wonder at the possibilities of human endeavour and spirit.

With reward comes risk, of course. That is the vital elemental spark of life that drives us on and is given a keener,
sharper dimension in the fierce furnace of professional,
competitive sport.

Matt Scott had to go off with concussion when Edinburgh played Toulon in the Champions Cup in October. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

Matt Scott had to go off with concussion when Edinburgh played Toulon in the Champions Cup in October. Picture: Bill Murray/SNS

Matt Scott, the 39-times capped Scotland centre who is thankfully back shipshape after over five months out with a concussion injury, is well aware that he is in a lucky position compared to others.

A good bank of a career already behind him, a law degree under his belt, back at his home city club in the care of an SRU medical team he knows and trusts, the 28-year-old is keen to acknowledge he is fortunate compared to others who face what can be a dogfight to earn a living from occupations that are, at the end of the day, just a game.

“There are guys who wouldn’t care [about suffering concussion], they just want to play rugby. Rugby is their life and that’s everything,” said Scott as he reflected on what he admitted was a “horrendous” period of months out after suffering a head injury in Edinburgh’s Heineken Champions Cup pool-stage victory over Toulon at BT Murrayfield back in October.

“I think I’m quite good at looking at the bigger picture. If it got to the stage where it was a real risk to my health then I would probably stop. If you play rugby you are putting yourself in that vulnerable position.”

Concussion in contact sports like rugby, and its long-term effects, is a story that won’t and shouldn’t go away. Rugby’s governing bodies have responded, with awareness, guidance and protocols now at a high level.

There remains, though, the doubt of the unknown and the bottom-line truth that, for some not as fortunate as Scott, the admirable slogan “if in doubt sit them out” means out of pocket.

“I’ve seen it in the professional game,” said the product of Currie, who is back in Edinburgh for a second spell following a stint at Gloucester. “Guys are saying they have a headache but they just don’t tell them [medics].

“It’s easy to say I would never play with a headache, but you’ve got guys who are perhaps coming to the last two or three months of their contracts, they don’t have a club for next year, and they’re thinking, ‘I’ve got a bit of a headache but I’m not going to declare that because I need to play for a club because no one will pick me up if I’ve not played with the concussion.’

“Even coming up to World Cup time, if somebody picks up a head knock before they get on the plane to Japan… Do you mention it or do you not? It’s interesting.”

Scott, who scored a try in last Saturday’s win at Scarlets as he continues his comeback, admits it has been a frustrating wait to get back in the fray.

“It was horrendous,” he revealed. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. We were going into [Scotland] camp for the autumn Tests. Basically, I got a forearm to my head on the stroke of half-time [against Toulon]. I wasn’t knocked out but I remember thinking that it was quite a big blow to my head. At half-time I felt a bit groggy but I’ve felt fine and went out and played and finished the game. I came into Scotland camp on the Sunday and I thought I was fine, but on the Monday in the gym we were doing some light weights and I felt sick and dizzy.

“I was thinking then that I would be fine for the next week, for the next game. But next week becomes next month and it dragged on for five months with headaches every day. It is such an intangible injury. There are no scars and no broken bones.”

Last week Scotland and Leicester No 8 David Denton told The Scotsman that his World Cup dream was over after being ruled out for the rest of the season with his latest head injury. Scott played with Denton in the Edinburgh team that reached the Heineken Cup semi-finals back in 2012 and the mates have provided mutual support at a difficult time.

“I’m close with Dave and it was good to know that I wasn’t the only one experiencing this,” continued Scott. “I thought, ‘Jesus, this is really unusual, I’m taking so long to come back’. They [medical support] are big on you being honest with them, saying you have still got a headache. For someone like Dave, who is on his third or fourth bad one and has just had a kid, you do start to have those conversations with yourself. For me, it’s my first real big one and I feel sort of fine now. I wouldn’t say I got to the stage where I asked if it was worth it, but if you ask me after my second or third – hopefully I don’t get there – my answer might be different.”

Scott is grateful to have been in the hands of the SRU medical team, with chief medic Dr James Robson one of the driving forces in rugby’s moves to address the subject of head injuries. “Moving to France you do have to think,” said Scott. “If I was in that situation at a French club I reckon they would be saying ‘play or we don’t pay you’.

“I don’t think I would have been given the same treatment as I have had here. That’s maybe a bit of a generalisation, but Cockers [Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill] never once asked me when I would be back. It was always just ‘come back when you’re ready’. That was really good.”

The law degree is there but, unsurprisingly, after experiencing a professional sporting career that began in 2011, the thought of the daily grind doesn’t appeal to the man who made his Scotland debut in Dublin seven years ago and played in the 2015 World Cup.

“I’m one of those guys who did a law degree but doesn’t want to be a lawyer,” said Scott with a smile as he spoke ahead of tomorrow’s vital Guinness Pro14 clash with Ulster. “I’ve been doing a lot of property stuff, like developing, refurbishing and selling. I’m quite into all that. I feel like I’m in a more fortunate position than most because I got my degree, but I still don’t really know for sure.”

The ‘not really knowing’ part is what makes sport what it is, but health and wellbeing can be managed to a degree. Scott is clearly not a man who will take an unnecessary risk.

Except, you could argue, in the barbers. His new bleach blond hairdo, setting a trend for the likes of Glasgow full-back Stuart Hogg it seems, is something he admits has led to some stick. But nothing he can’t handle.

“Most normal jobs you couldn’t get away with stupid haircuts… I might only have a few years left of this,” he said with a laugh. “Certainly with Cockers he’s been asking me every day when I’m getting rid of it. I know if I do anything wrong it’s going to be a very easy target in the team meeting!

“The whole coaching team [attack coach Duncan Hodge and defence coach Calum MacRae] are pretty much… well they’re not haired! So I’m fine with the banter.”