CORNISH Pirates back rower Alex Cheesman admits he is “completely gutted” to have been forced to retire after suffering a series of concussions last season.
The 29-year-old, who joined the Pirates from Loughborough Students in 2012, has never fully recovered from the last of the knocks to the head that he took in the opening five minutes of the game at Nottingham in mid-February, which was shown live on Sky Sports.
Anyone familiar with Cheesman’s brave, all-action style of play that endeared him to Pirates’ fans, will not be surprised that he has picked up some knocks along the way, but as he explained to me, he has now taken one too many.
“The bang I took against Nottingham was the trigger for all of this,” said Cheesman. “The protocol in place from the RFU as of last season was that, if you sustain three head knocks in a 12- month period, you undergo a minimum 12-week lay-off.
“Normally you just have to do the impact assessment pitchside, and then you repeat that throughout the week, and theoretically, you can play again six days after suffering a concussion, but I had to sit it out for 12 weeks.
“The one I suffered at Nottingham was my third concussion in the space of about two months. I had to go up to Birmingham and take part in a research project that is being sponsored by the RFU, so I went up and down from there a few times throughout that initial 12-week period, mainly to help provide them with data, because they are doing quite a lot of research on concussion to help get better protocols in place for the future.
“My progress was not as quick as expected, and that led to me going to see a neurologist, a brain surgeon, and further and further down the line, more of my history of concussions came out.
“I have sustained a good number of concussions, but I don’t suppose I am the only person to have taken that many impacts to the head, though definitely more than most, because of my position on the pitch.
“During the last couple of years, lots of people have gone through the same thing.
“I was just reading the other day about Jared Payne (the Ulster and Ireland centre/full-back), who got a head knock on the Lions tour and retired about a year after, having never returned to playing.
“Similarly, you have got the former Saracens captain, Alistair Hargreaves, who retired after getting a concussion in a training session, it wasn’t even full contact.
“Someone ran into him and they clashed heads, and that was the end of his career.
“You can have those one-off events, but for me I think it was the accumulation of impacts really that caused it, and the one in Nottingham was just the trigger.”
Cheesman has been told by doctors to quit playing any rugby whatsoever, and he confessed it was taking a while for the news to sink in.
“It is a strange situation to be in and you are not really prepared for what happens now,” he said. “It doesn’t feel real to me yet, and it just feels like an extended off-season for me.
“It definitely hasn’t sunk in that I won’t be playing again, and I don’t know at what point it will.
“I imagine it will be a gradual thing.
“It was a particularly bad concussion I got up in Nottingham and I have still got a few symptoms that have lingered on, such as headaches and things like that that come on at random points but also from certain exercises.
“Those are the sort of things I am kind of used to dealing with now, and the idea is that they will settle down with time, especially when I am removed from the stress of constantly trying to push my heart rate up to see if it gives me headaches again, because I have been putting myself under a lot of pressure to get back to playing once more.
“Now that pressure is not there, hopefully I will get some more improvements.”
Pirates coach Alan Paver commented: “It’s naturally very sad when a situation arises whereby any player, let alone one we have been so closely connected and are good friends with, has to retire because of injury.
“Alex has been a tremendous contributor during his years at the club, and although we have endeavoured to support him through this difficult period, these situations do occasionally sadly happen.
“We all express our best wishes to Alex for the future, as he has been a popular and highly respected Pirate who we look forward to seeing at games.”