Head over heart


Following a number of repeated concussions former RPA Player Representative and Leeds Carnegie lock, Jonathan Pendlebury, was this summer forced to retire from professional rugby following medical advice. He joined The Players’ Room to talk about how he came to terms with the decision and what the future holds.

Jon, how hard was it making the decision to retire from professional rugby?

It was and it wasn’t. I desperately wanted to play, but I knew with the amount of concussions I’d suffered and from advice I’d been given that my future health was at serious risk, so there was no decision to be made in the end, I knew I had to retire.

Was it something you’d known would happen or did it come as a surprise?

I think all players know retirement is going to come at some point, I just hoped it wouldn’t come as soon as it did. I got a huge knock on my head in the final game of the season, the doctor came on to the field and I told him I was fine, then at half-time I began feeling sick and I was replaced. It was after that game the doctor said he wanted to see me in his office first thing the next morning; I knew exactly what he was going to say.

You’ve now taken on the role of Assistant Academy Manager at Leeds, how did that job come about?

Last season, as part of my playing contract, I had an involvement with the academy, taking sessions when I could and mentoring players. Chris Gibson (Leeds Director of Rugby) was aware of my situation having had discussions with the team doctor, he and Mark Luffman then offered me the chance to come on board full-time as Mark’s assistant.

Are you enjoying the new job, how different is it being a coach to a player?

It’s very different from being a player, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it. We’ve got a great team of academy staff and we’re trying to get our boys back on top because by our standards it had slipped the past few seasons and we feel that we’ve got a lot of great potential coming through.

How have you found the transition from playing to coaching?

It’s very different; I’m planning for and looking after 18-25 year old lads and coaching them through various sessions, but when you’re a player you just think about your individual role within a team. The hardest part for me was as a player I knew exactly where I needed to be and everything is planned out for you, for example I knew at 8am I had weights, 9:30am was skills and so on. Now my day doesn’t have that level of structure, which is a big change.

How has retirement impacted on you personally?

It’s been very hard, I’m still coming to terms with it and I obviously feel it a lot more now the season has started. I miss training every day and playing on a weekend, but I definitely think it would have been a lot harder if I wasn’t still involved in rugby. I’m lucky; some lads don’t have anything to move in to and don’t have a focus, so I’m extremely fortunate in that sense.

How important do you think it is for players to take advantage of the advice offered to players by The RPA?

It’s incredibly important. I’ve been very fortunate as I’ve seen it from both sides, as a player and a rep. I know what they have to offer and I know where they are trying to get to with things like the Player Development Programme and there are so many resources available to players. I think it sometimes gets forgotten, but The RPA isn’t just there when players are in a bit of bother, they have far more to offer than that.

How vital do you think the role of the PDM (Player Development Manager) is, in terms of the day to day interaction with players?

For me that’s the biggest part of The RPA. I think the Player Development Programme is a great idea and I’ve benefited massively from working with Tim Nicholls in the past and more recently with Mandy Thompson. From my experience they do a great job and the advice they can give is invaluable. I’d advise any young player to have a chat with their PDM, get to know them and see how you can develop yourself outside of rugby because it will definitely help in the long-term.

You’ve been an RPA rep twice now, once for Gloucester and most recently for Leeds, what made you want to be involved?

I think I just wanted to know what was going on really! (Laughs) I’ve never been shy about sharing my thoughts and I felt it could help me develop as a person and help find out what opportunities are out there for me. It was another way I could gain some experience outside of playing rugby.

Your retirement was based on medical advice, how aware do you think players and clubs are of the dangers of repeated concussions?

In all honesty I don’t think they are, you hear stories of coaches asking ‘is he fit, can you get him fit for the weekend’ and that’s because they don’t fully understand the condition. We just don’t know enough about concussion, in ten or fifteen year’s time every rugby player could be fine but on the other hand they could really be suffering.

I knew it was a problem for me and some of the things I’ve seen and read have frightened me and to be honest that’s the only time I’ve been worried about coming back from an injury. The main thing is as a sport we need to know more about it and how it will effect players in the future, I’ve been lucky because I’ve always received top medical care in particular at Leeds Carnegie and I’ve always trusted their advice.

I think the new rules will definitely help the situation, sometimes a player may find it hard to leave the game environment but if they are taken away from that it allows doctors to give them a full examination and make a much more informed decision on their condition.

All photographs courtesy of Leeds Carnegie and Getty images.

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