England centre Alex Lozowski’s return from the first serious concussion of his career has been shaped by the testimony of Steve Thompson, who revealed his haunting story of how rugby related head injuries have impacted on is post-playing life, triggering early onset dementia.
Lozowski, 27, is currently on a one year loan deal with Montpellier before rejoining Saracens and returned to play in the French club’s defeat by Leinster last weekend and lined up against Wasps, one of his former club, at the Ricoh Arena on Friday night.
The five times capped England centre suffered a head injury against Bayonne on November 14 and was sent to see a neurosurgeon by Montpellier whose medical staff have worked closely with the centre who lives in a flat near the club’s ground in the city. The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have given Lozowski plenty of time to think about his situation and to read former England hooker Thompson’s story and the testimony of other players who are also threatening major unions with legal action.
As professional sportsman at a new club, Lozowski is desperate to play his part in helping Montpellier in the Top 14 and Heineken Champions Cup competitions, but this first significant concussion which led to repeated headaches, made him acutely aware that only he really knew when it was right to return to rugby.
Lozowski told RugbyPass: “Against Bayonne I had a bang on the head which didn’t get better as quickly as I would have liked. I had been struggling but in the last couple of week started to feel better and with all the news about Steve Thompson and those guys it made me think that I just can’t risk it.
“You have to take your time even though it was very frustrating not being able to contribute as much as I would like, I know you have to take care of your head and I got through the game against Leinster and the head feels fine. I am hoping it is all behind me now and I can crack on with the season and make a difference with Montpellier. Concussion is unbelievably difficult and the one I had five or six week ago is my first bad one and so it was a new experience for me.
“As a player, you want to get back as soon as possible after an injury and the difficultly is that unlike an injury where you go for a scan and a doctor says it is going to be this number of weeks before you can play again, with your head some days you feel Ok and others you feel tired. You ask yourself am I feeling tired because I didn’t sleep well or because my head is not right? I do feel it is a grey area and with me, I wasn’t quite sure if I was right or not and in the end, I got headaches when I did come back.
“The lesson I learnt is that I must take my time and be 100 per cent sure because you cannot mess about with concussion. With all the stories coming from the ex-players you cannot rush these things and I will never try to come back quickly again from a concussion.
“Montpellier sent me to see a neurological specialist and the club are doing their best to take care of you but with head injuries, in my opinion, a lot of responsibility falls upon you as an individual to take ownership and control of how you are feeling. As much a every player want to play you have to be aware of how you are and not rush back. The headaches are horrible and not like ones after a few beers, they are really nasty and you have to be on the ball to know where you are.
“It is down to you to get an understanding of where you are and I probably got it wrong with my first one. Rugby is only a small part of our lives and even though it is so important and so when Steve Thompson’s news came out it brought home that here is a bigger picture. It was a wake-up call for me because being desperate to play you may try and cut a corner but you don’t want to end up in a bad situation in 20 years.”
Lozowski got the chance to experience Top 14 rugby while Saracens are operating in the Championship following their relegation, however, the pandemic has affected the league schedule with Montpellier having to deal with a disrupted season to this point. Now, the England international is hoping to get into a rhythm of playing alongside proven test players such as French lock Paul Willemse and Springbok scrum half Cobus Reinach with the Wasps game a chance to bounce back after the 35-14 home Cup loss to Leinster.
That loss came hard on the heels of an away win at Clermont, a significant achievement for the club which made the defeat to Leinster tougher to take. Lozowski said: “ I am really looking forward to catching up with some old friends at Wasps and they have got off to a really good start while we had a tough loss. Quit a few games been postponed and it has been disjointed with a three weeks without a match and we are looking forward to a run of games.
“The virus has disrupted things and it has been a case of training and the straight back to where you are living. I am relying all the technology to keep in touch with everyone and its been a shame no one has been able to come out to see the games. We are playing La Rochelle in the Top 14 and I have been in regular touch with Will Skelton ( former Saracens team mate) and it will be different to be facing him rather than have him on my side!”