Interview: Scotland forward David Denton on concussion and his rugby future

David Denton takes on Kurtley Beale of Australia during the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final at Twickenham. Picture: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
David Denton takes on Kurtley Beale of Australia during the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final at Twickenham. Picture: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
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David Denton recalls it as “one of my favourites”, and that 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Australia is certainly a standout when you look back on the, hopefully, not-yet-over career of the 42-times capped Scotland back-row forward.

From early in the game he was barging into the Wallabies with a thumping velocity which set the tone for an epic afternoon at Twickenham when Scotland came so agonisingly close to reaching the semi-finals.

The story of the game and its crushing finale is well told and doesn’t need rehashing here but sometimes it is worth looking into the threads of such tales and Zimbabwe-born Denton’s current plight brings into focus a major issue currently facing rugby.

The former Edinburgh 
No 8 will this miss this year’s World Cup. He has not played since 6 October, when he was concussed while playing for Leicester against Northampton in an English Premiership match at Twickenham, the scene of arguably his finest hour in dark blue.

That English Premiership game was moved from Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens to raise money for Saints’ former Australia centre Rob Horne who, aged 28, had been left with severe nerve damage and paralysis in his right arm after a collision in the same 
fixture at Welford Road in April that year.

Modern professional rugby is a tough business. Big men, big collisions. It’s part of the attraction, for willing participant and spectator alike, but it comes at a cost. The eternal question is when does the cost become too much? And what can be done to lessen the 
damage?

In general life, the state intervenes but in sport it is usually left to the governing bodies and, to its credit, World Rugby and its member unions have made big strides in the last few years when it comes to head injuries. The SRU’s long-time chief medic James Robson has been a force in driving home the need for stringent protocols when it comes to assessing head injuries. “If in doubt, sit them out” is the slogan but for Denton the “doubt” part lingers on.

Last week it was confirmed that he won’t play again this season and the 29-year-old spoke to The Scotsman from Cape Town, where he is recuperating with his young family, hopeful that he will be back on a rugby field again but accepting that may not be the case.

“It’s something I need to think about,” said the 6ft 5in 19 stone No 8 with a sigh which suggests it’s the last thing he wants to think about.

“I’m not a small man but these days you are coming up against one-ton packs. You’re looking at 20 tackles, 30 big collisions every game at the top level.”

Back in South Africa and keeping in shape at the famed Stellenbosch University, where his sister is studying, Denton remains positive.

“It’s not an ideal situation, it’s incredibly frustrating, the goalposts keep changing in terms of how they assess your recovery but let’s see,” he said. “I’ve seen guys this season like Leigh Halfpenny and Matty Scott at Edinburgh who have been stood down for a number of months and come back to play.”

Wales and Lions full-back Halfpenny, who will line up against Edinburgh for Scarlets tomorrow, admitted last week that he thought his career may be over after a head blow he took in the November Test against Australia.

“There was a point where I was constantly having headaches and was trying to do something on the bike or jogging and my head would be pounding from it,” Halfpenny told the BBC.

World Rugby’s guidelines state that any player who has suffered concussion must pass a series of tests over a six-day period before they can be cleared to play again but that process can only begin once they have been symptom free for 24 hours.

Denton, who qualified for Scotland through his Glasgow-born mother and won his first cap in a World Cup warm-up Test against Ireland in 2011, moved to the Scottish capital to study economics at the University of Edinburgh. From Edinburgh Accies he won Scotland Under-20 honours before earning a professional contract.

He was part of the last Edinburgh team, prior to last Saturday, to reach a European Champions Cup quarter-final, playing in the famous win over Toulouse in 2012 alongside centre Scott, pictured, right, who has had almost six months out this season due to a head injury.

Denton can identify with his former team-mate. Something like this isn’t new for the forward. He almost missed the 2015 World Cup and the barnstorming quarter-final due to a concussion he received after a clattering collision he took against Paul O’Connell’s hip during an Edinburgh-Munster game in April that year.

“I was in the wrong place, wrong time,” said Denton four years ago. “My head started to hurt, I didn’t feel good and I had to come straight off. Afterwards I thought I would be back playing in a few weeks.

“Little did I know that collision with Paul O’Connell’s hip would keep me out for seven weeks and put my World Cup preparations on the back foot. It even made me wonder if I would make the tournament.”

From Edinburgh, Denton’s professional journey has wound its way to Leicester via Bath and Worcester and he said: “I have another two years left on my contract and Leicester have been unbelievably supportive, I can’t say that enough. We’ve had talks and it’s been ‘if you can maybe play six games next season, maybe 20 in the next two’. That’s what we’re looking at.

“From thinking I maybe had five more years in the game I’m now looking at two and I’m starting to think about life after rugby, prepare for that.”

At one point during our chat, Denton says: “Can I call you back? I have a sleeping baby in the car.”

The important things in life will drive his next decision.