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Former All Blacks prop Carl Hayman revealed on Wednesday he has early-onset dementia aged just 41 and has joined a concussion legal action launched by ex-players against rugby authorities.
Hayman, who earned 45 Test caps and played extensively in Europe after international retirement in 2007, said he sought medical advice after experiencing memory loss, confusion and suicidal thoughts.
"I spent several years thinking I was going crazy, at one point that's genuinely what I thought," he told New Zealand sports website The Bounce.
"It was the constant headaches and all these things going on that I couldn't understand."
Hayman said tests showed he had early-onset dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a neurodegenerative disease.
The diagnosis prompted him to join a lawsuit brought by similarly affected former players, including England's Steve Thompson and Alix Popham of Wales, against the sport's governing bodies.
The basis of the players' claim is that World Rugby and other authorities failed to provide sufficient protection when the risks of concussion and sub-concussive injuries were "known and foreseeable".
Hayman said one reason for joining the legal action was to force fundamental changes to the game to minimise the risk of head injuries.
"(I) hope that the players of the future don't fall into the same trap that I did, that they're not treated like an object and are looked after better," he said.
"These younger aspiring players need to know what they're getting into and there needs to be more support and better monitoring around head injuries and workloads."
- 'In a deep, dark place' -
Hayman was part of the legendary Toulon side that won three consecutive European Cups from 2013-15.
He retired after the third title but began to abuse alcohol, displaying anxiety and anger issues, resulting in a 2019 conviction in France for domestic violence against his ex-wife.
"I was in a deep, dark place and unfortunately I will have to carry that with me forever," he said.
All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree expressed sympathy for Hayman, saying rugby's laws had been changed to protect the head and ensure there were fewer concussions.
"We've got a responsibility to make sure the game is safe and that parents want their kids to play," he told reporters.
Concussion has become a major issue in sports, with a similar lawsuit launched against English rugby league last month and US gridiron authorities reportedly paying out hundreds of millions in compensation to injured players.
Concerns over head blows in football and cricket have seen protective measures and concussion protocols improved, though critics say more can be done.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) chief executive Mark Robinson said his thoughts were with Hayman, his former Test teammate.
Robinson said NZR was developing world-leading policies and research on concussion aimed at protecting players at all levels of the game.
"The issue of the link between concussion and long-term cognitive issues is extremely complex and the science is evolving," he said.
"New Zealand Rugby will continue to prioritise player welfare and making the game safer for all."
World Rugby said it had not been contacted by Hayman and could not comment on specifics of the legal action adding "player welfare is the sport's top priority".
"We are saddened by the accounts of former players and their experiences," it said in a statement.
"It is not easy to speak so candidly about their personal circumstances and we appreciate what it takes for them to do so."