‘I joined rugby’s brain injury lawsuit after watching the Steve Thompson documentary’

Teresa O'Reilly - 'I joined rugby’s brain injury lawsuit after watching the Steve Thompson documentary'
Teresa O'Reilly is one of three women named in the class action - Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph

Teresa O’Reilly was sitting in her living room when she was hit by the harrowing realisation that her brain was broken.

She had decided to watch Head On: Rugby, Dementia and Me, the heartbreaking documentary about 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson, who has early-onset dementia and struggles to remember large parts of his career. O’Reilly, a former prop who amassed 49 England caps, could relate to almost all of the symptoms that Thompson was describing.

“It was an ‘Oh my God’ moment. My mouth went dry,” says O’Reilly. “I thought, ‘B----- hell, some of that is me.’ It wasn’t panic, but fear. The same sensation when I used to play internationally, that guttural feeling before going out to play.”

Over the following 12 months, O’Reilly, who enjoyed an eight-year playing career for Saracens – a powerhouse of the women’s amateur game during the 1990s, underwent a series of neurological tests.

In March this year, at the age of 58, she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia and joined 295 former players who are taking a class action against the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby. The three bodies stand accused of negligence in their failure to protect players from brain injuries during their careers.

‘Nobody did any cognitive testing when I played’

O’Reilly represented her country at two World Cups and was most-capped England female prop when she retired in 2002, a year before Thompson played in England’s historic World Cup victory that has since been wiped from his memory.

O’Reilly’s recollection of her own sporting career is hazy, too. In fact, she readily admits that she will not remember most of our conversation in the rural Oxfordshire pub where our chat takes place. It is partly why Jacky, her partner, is present. O’Reilly struggles with her word finding. Jacky, who knows her inside out, is here to help finish her sentences.

O'Reilly is treated on field for a bang on the head
O'Reilly suffered numerous blows to the head during her career with Saracens and England

O’Reilly has brought along a box of memorabilia from her playing days to jog her memory. The photos, thumbed and fragile, spill out onto the table. There is one that shows her at the peak of her career, sporting a cropped haircut, during a game for England. She is kneeling on the pitch and her head is cradled by a physio. She cannot remember the year, or where the match was played.

“That was after getting a really bad whack in the head against France,” says O’Reilly, the first female player involved in the lawsuit to speak publicly. “The physio probably asked me if I could squeeze his hand and what I could see. Nobody did any cognitive testing or baseline concussion testing. If you were stupid, you could lie about it.”

O’Reilly made her England debut in 1998 at a time when the women’s game was a poor relation to the men’s and afforded a fraction of the profile it enjoys now. She was as dedicated as the next male player who had aspirations of becoming a professional.

On an average day, she would cycle between 15 to 20 miles as part of her commute to work. Her lunch breaks would be taken up by speed drills and she would diligently do the weight sessions required to bulk up her 73kg (11st 7lb) frame for the front row, where, she now recognises, she spent years bludgeoning her brain.

Player welfare was non-existent. At England level, it was not uncommon for one voluntary team doctor to look after a squad of 30 players. There were many times no medic showed up at all, with players often encouraged to “run off” concussions. “If you didn’t ‘run it off’ you wouldn’t be in the squad,” says O’Reilly.

Teresa O'Reilly breaks past a France defender
O'Reilly was England's most-capped prop, male or female, when she retired - David Rogers/ALLSPORT

Ahead of the 1998 World Cup in the Netherlands, England, who had won the tournament four years earlier and were aiming to defend their crown, brought in a specialist coach in Phil Larder, the former rugby league player who was also Clive Woodward’s defence coach.

He was known as “Phil-hit-em-harder-Larder” among O’Reilly and her peers, owing to the sheer brutality of his training sessions, but scrummaging practice took an even heavier toll.

“I can distinctly remember coming out of some of those scrum sessions and it was like being run over,” says O’Reilly. “We scrummaged to the point where we were going to pass out.

“They dug the scrum machine into the ground so it couldn’t move. You actually want it to give a bit, but as a front-row player, you’d feel your blood vessels in your neck being constricted with the amount of effort.”

Such training methods, while merciless, helped England reach the 1998 World Cup semi-final, a tournament in which O’Reilly suffered a significant head injury that would leave her debilitated for months. She does not remember coming off the pitch, nor flying home.

“It took about 10 minutes for me to realise I couldn’t continue and had to come off,” she says. “I was sick for about 24 hours, as if I had a hangover. I had a few weeks off, sort of got over it and went back to training [but] I still had muzziness. I was doing weights and it felt like somebody was whacking me in the head with a hammer.” Her health continued spiralling and she ended up losing her job as a project manager for a construction company.

O’Reilly does not know how many concussions and sub-concussive blows she sustained during her career. “I imagine it would be in the thousands,” she says. “If you’d given me a million quid, I’d never have played in the front row knowing what I know now.”

She had a successful career – accolades include being named England Player of the Year in 1999 and voted into Rugby World magazine’s hall of fame in 2002 as well as winning a World Cup silver and bronze medal – but now she wonders whether it was all worth it.

Teresa with her Rugby World award
O'Reilly was elected into Rugby World's hall of fame in 2002 - Eddie Mulholland for the Telegraph

‘I am 58 and it was like I had the memory of an 80-year-old’

O’Reilly’s brain is showing signs consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – the degenerative brain disease that can only be diagnosed after death.

Eight years ago, when she first started experiencing symptoms, including chronic headaches, brain fogginess and fatigue, doctors put them down to the menopause. There was never any onward questioning about her career in elite sport.

It was not until she made the “shocking parallel” with Thompson that she contacted Richard Boardman of law firm Rylands Garth, who is leading the class-action lawsuit. O’Reilly agreed to get neurologically tested.

The three-hour ordeal, in which she struggled to perform simple memory recall tasks, still haunts her. “It was probably the only time I’ve broken down,” she says. “I was 58 and it was like I had the memory of an 80-year-old. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that shock. I came out and blubbed like a child. That realisation that my brain isn’t working properly was horrific.”

O’Reilly’s diagnosis has provided a shred of relief but it has not halted her deteriorating health. Her headaches, which occur on an almost daily basis, have intensified, as has the high-pitched screaming inside her head. At home, there have been times when she puts the kettle in the fridge or her phone in the washing up bowl. Pin numbers have become a nightmare to remember.

Teresa O'Reilly
O'Reilly, England's player of the year in 1999, now suffers from daily headaches and a high-pitched screaming noise in her head - Eddie Mulholland for the Telegraph

She no longer uses her local multistorey car park because the last time she drove into it, she could not find her way out. There have been times she has driven the wrong way to work, despite doing the same commute for years. She has also stopped driving at night due to her profound sensitivity to lights.

A few weeks ago, she and Jacky went to see Dawn French live. It was her first time doing anything socially in more than two years. “I nearly left because I couldn’t cope with the chatter of the public and the auditorium lights as we were waiting for the performance to start,” she recalls. “It was overloading my brain.”

Recently, O’Reilly has started having problems with swallowing. She and Jacky now eat dinner in silence. While she is able to medicate her headaches, her mood has also become unstable. A week before we met, O’Reilly, an avid cyclist her entire life, had tried to change a valve in her bike tyre. “I couldn’t work out how to do it,” she says. “I nearly smashed my bike up over that.”

O’Reilly is still able to work as an operations manager for the NHS, but in recent years tasks have become more arduous and she has moved into lower-banded roles. She has not only been forced to contemplate taking early retirement but also her own mortality.

“Lots of people will go through this on their own without the understanding or the support. Jacky’s my absolute rock. When I talk about going to Switzerland (where assisted suicide is legal), Jacky would let me make that decision and respect it, however hard it is,” says O’Reilly.

“I don’t want to be in a care home, with somebody else wiping my a--- and feeding me stuff I don’t like. I want some respect and dignity and to choose when it’s right for me. I work in the NHS. I know how knackered care is.”

Former internationals Non Evans (Wales) and Meghan Mutrie (Canada) are also part of the concussion lawsuit against rugby’s authorities. With research showing that women are more than twice as likely to suffer a concussion than men in contact sport – as well as experience more pronounced symptoms – O’Reilly believes there could be more former female players in her situation.

“Some of my peers won’t believe and acknowledge these issues,” she says. There is a sadness discernible in her voice. “I honestly think that. Unless it happens to you, it’s not real.”

Earlier this year, a ‘Red Roses Wall’ was erected at Twickenham, honouring almost 250 women who have represented England. O’Reilly cannot bring herself to go to see it. Having watched snippets of the men’s World Cup this year, she has become desensitised to the sport that irreparably damaged her brain. “I love the sport. I’m just not interested in it anymore,” she says.

Does she want rugby’s authorities to apologise? “No. I want commitment and assurance that they are testing players properly and that there’s ongoing support once people retire, even if that’s a brain scan every five years, at all levels of the game,” she says.

“There needs to be recognition that there is a long-term effect should you not understand the context of what you’re doing. That’s what needs to come out of this. Do you understand, by doing this sport that, potentially, you could end up in brain limiting capacity? Have you planned for that? Because I b----- haven’t planned for it.”