David Denton preparing for end of his career after concussion in October
David Denton recalls it as “one of my favourites” and that 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Australia is certainly a stand-out when you look back on the, hopefully, continuing career of the 42-times capped Scotland back-rower.
From early doors 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 that game (no Craig Joubert please, we’re Scottish) is well told and doesn’t need a re-telling but sometimes it’s worth looking into the threads of such tales and Zimbabwe-born Denton’s brings into focus one of the major issues facing rugby currently.
The former Edinburgh No.8 has not played since October 6 when he was concussed during an English Premiership match with Northampton at Twickenham, the scene of arguably his finest hour in the 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, was 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 with a cost. The eternal question is where does the cost become too much? And what can be done to alleviate that.
In general life the state intervenes but in sport it is generally left to the governing bodies and, to its credit, World Rugby and its member unions have made big strides in the past 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 is hopeful he will be back on a rugby field again, but accepts 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 thsese 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 home 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.
“If I’m being honest it did,” Halfpenny told the BBC. “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.”
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 a 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’ 3rd XV he won Scotland Under-20 honours before earning a professional contract.
He was part of the last Edinburgh team, prior to Saturday past, to reach a European Champions Cup quarter-final in the famous win over Toulouse in 2012 alongside centre Scott, who has had almost six months out this season with a head injury problem.
Something like this isn’t new for Denton. He almost missed that 2015 World Cup and barnstorming showing in the quarter-finals 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.
“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.”
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.”