It is early morning in Marseille’s old port where the trawlermen are unloading their catch for the day. The smell of red mullet, bream and grouper fills the air as restaurateurs buzz around the harbour, picking out the best fish for the weekend’s bouillabaisse.
Dylan Hartley is the last person you would expect to bump into but there he is, standing in front of the boats, taking a selfie with a couple of kilted Scotland fans. ‘Not a bad spot, is it?’ he shouts out, catching eyes across the market stalls.
‘Let’s talk,’ he says, 11 months on, agreeing to meet a couple of days later. We reconvene at a hotel in the old town and find a quiet table in the shade. It is the morning after England’s victory over Argentina.
‘I got my results and I didn’t really want to talk about it,’ he explains, gulping a large bottle of water in the 30C heat. ‘I was coming to terms with my brain not being as healthy as I wanted it to be. Sorry, I didn’t mean to blank you, it’s just the more you talk about it the more real it is. Talking about it was quite hard but it was all part of the process of dealing with it.’
Taking his phone out from his pocket, he shows a series of scans of his brain. Perfusion scans cutting through the cranium, 3D models and cross sections of white matter. All weird and wonderful colours that tell the story of a rugby player whose head was thrown around like a crash-test dummy.
‘I never wanted to get a scan because I didn’t want to know the truth. I’d started to stutter and mix my words, dropping things and struggling when my kids made certain noises. I was confronting the monster under the bed, in a way. I did an MRI scan and a SPECT scan. The SPECT scan is where they inject low-level radiation into your body and see how your brain is firing.
‘There were signs that my head had been through a pretty tough time. I was basically diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. It was a big moment. The term “concussion” almost lessens the blow and I think people should probably change the language. It’s traumatic brain injury.
‘I don’t want to say I had areas of brain that were dead, but they were asleep. They were dormant. The hardest thing in life is usually the right thing to do. The easy thing is to ignore things. I took the hard path, went and got the scan and I’m so happy I did.’
Source of data and images: dailymail