'His personality changed': The concussions that saw rugby star diagnosed with dementia aged just 60

Peter Jones in action in Llanelli

Peter Jones was a legend in Llandeilo, as loved for his exploits as a hard-tackling flanker as his status as the local carpenter.

But when the former Neath and Llanelli player started getting confused while doing everyday tasks, his family knew something was wrong. 

“He would lose his way driving”, remembers son Lloyd.

“Or he was struggling with sequencing when he was doing some of his jobs. And that was very unusual for him because it was his profession.” 

“He knew all the routes around South Wales and all the ways and it was quite strange for him to to lose his way really. We thought ‘there's something going on here.’ “

Having started displaying symptoms in his late 50s, Peter was diagnosed with early onset dementia aged 60.

Previously a regular face in the town’s pubs, the once gregarious character became quiet and introverted.

Lloyd Jones, Peter's son

“His personality totally changed”, Lloyd said.

“We were like best friends and would talk for hours after coming back from the pub at the kitchen table until 2am. We were like best buddies really.”

“That sort of just disappeared over time. It’s really sad.”

“He was loved by people in the rugby community for what he brought to the town and he was also loved because he was a carpenter of the town as well.”

Peter’s wife gave up her career as a nurse to look after her husband. 

Eventually he went to live in a care home before dying last year aged 71.

Peter went to live in a care home before dying last year aged 71.

After reading about other rugby players who’d developed neurological problems after retiring, Peter’s family began to wonder whether the game had contributed to his problems.

They tried to arrange for a second post-mortem examination, this time on his brain.

“His death certificate said COVID was the reason of death, but we still wanted to find out what what his brain was saying.” Lloyd told me at his home in Bristol.

“There was a professor up in Scotland, Willie Stewart. He came forward and was willing to do the post mortem for us.”

“And three months later we had a meeting with him, and he told us that it was it was clearly CTE caused by rugby.”

Professor Stewart - an expert in head injuries in sport - had found signs of CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, in Peter’s brain. 

It’s a condition associated with repeated blows to to head, or sub-concussions, often found in sports people.

Last year it was revealed that a group of ex-rugby players, including former Wales back row player Alix Popham, are pursuing legal action against rugby’s governing bodies, including the WRU, for failing to protect them against the effects of concussion.

Popham had previously announced that he’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia aged just 41.

The issue of head injuries was in the spotlight again recently, with the retirement of Scarlets player James Davies. 

Davies, who’s 31, had not played since the Wales match against Georgia in the autumn of 2020.

In a statement, he described the prospect of suffering another concussion as “unthinkable.”

And there was controversy when Wales prop Tomas Francis appeared to suffer a concussion during the recent England v Wales Six Nations match.

Despite being visibly unsteady on his feet following the incident, Francis was allowed back on the field later in the game after the match day doctor deemed him fit to play following completion of the Head Injury Assessment (HIA).

A later review carried out by the Six Nations concluded that Francis "should have been immediately and permanently removed from play".

The WRU said its "medical personnel are very experienced" and it supports "all of their actions during the England v Wales Guinness Six Nations match", adding that it "cooperated fully with the review undertaken by Six Nations".

Francis was then selected for the match against France two weeks later, a decision the Wales management said was made after “all the relevant protocols were followed.”

Richard Boardman

Richard Boardman, a solicitor representing 175 former players, said his clients were demonstrating a range of symptoms.  

“We've got guys with chronic depression who’ve tried to kill themselves”, he said.

“We've got guys who are violent and aggressive towards their loved ones at home, as well as [having] considerable memory loss and inability to control their temper.”

“They become introverted and incontinent, sensitive to light and noise. It’s really sad.”

Progressive Rugby, a pressure group concerned about head injuries, are calling for a number of changes in the game.

Among them an extension of the “return to play protocols”, which currently allow players who’ve suffered a concussion to return to action after a minimum period of 6 days.

“If you're looking at the grass roots game, [the recovery period] is 19 days”, says Professor Bill Ribbans, a trauma consultant and expert in sports medicine, who works with the Progressive Rugby.

“And if you're in the school's game, it's 23 days. And we feel that even though the elite game does have access to more experienced clinicians in all probability, the injury to the brain is the same.” 

“And you could argue that in elite rugby, where the impacts are even higher, why should you have less time to return than you would in the in the grassroots for the school's game?"

Back in Bristol, Lloyd - once a useful player himself - says he’s glad that he left the game in his early 20s.

“I do feel quite lucky, because I was also a big hitter and very physical tackler, and I feel like I could probably have ended up like my father if I had carried on.”

“Things like this can happen to people. It’s not just knocks to your legs and things like that - it's problems with the brain.”

“I’ve seen how brain damage can affect people through my dad and it's not pretty. It’s so sad ,and no one would want that to happen to them or to anybody they love.”

“I’m just hoping that that some changes come soon.”

Lloyd, like others concerned about head injuries in rugby, says he doesn’t want to see the physicality of the game diminished.

But he does want to see changes to make the game safer, so those who play for our entertainment can enjoy healthier lives when they hang up their boots. 

A WRU spokesperson said: "We are saddened by the accounts of former players and their families and appreciate that it is not easy to speak so candidly about their own personal circumstances.  We care about every member of the rugby family.

"We support World Rugby’s six-point plan to cement rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare.  This commitment has former players at its heart but has also driven evidence-based moves to enhance player safety through science, technology, laws and research progression.

"We are unable to comment on the specifics of any potential legal action involving the Welsh Rugby Union.”