REVEALED: The inside story of Declan Fitzpatrick's decision to quit rugby due to concussion
The spectre of concussion looms larger after today's news.
Ulster Rugby have confirmed, this afternoon, that tight-head prop Declan Fitzpatrick will retire due, in large part, to a series of concussions.
The 31-year-old, who has seven caps with Ireland, will call time on his nine year career as a professional rugby player. Fitzpatrick suffered six concussions in his career, with four of them arriving in the last three seasons.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) April 16, 2015
Fitzpatrick has suffered a number of head injuries in the past three years, which have severely curtailed his playing time. In retiring, he follows former Connacht captain Craig Clarke in citing concussion as the primary reason.
He stated: 'It was a huge honour to have represented my country and an enormous privilege to pull on that green shirt. I have played alongside some brilliant individuals and have made friendships that will extend long into my retirement from rugby.'
He made his debut against the All Blacks, in June 2012, and featured in all three Tests. Unfortunately, concussion caused him to miss out on that November's internationals.
The injury was caused when, contesting a high ball, he caught a Tommy Bowe knee to the face in training and was badly concussed. Concerned about earning a new contract, Fitzpatrick admitted that he tried to return to play too soon, which worsened his condition.
He was once mooted as the heir to Mike Ross' No.3 jersey, with Ireland, but his last game in green was in November 2013 - the heart-wrenching defeat to New Zealand.
Fitzpatrick has suffered from migraines his whole life and the concussions he endured as a rugby player compounded that ailment.
His troubles with concussion led to his latest IRFU contract, with Ulster, being deferred 'subject to medical' until he was deemed fit to continue as a player. Those medical results came back, two weeks before Ulster's pre-season, in July and Fitzpatrick faced into his ninth season with the province. He told us:
'There is no way I’d be playing now if I thought there was any danger of jeopardising my health. You have to have faith in the medical point of view and the statistics that say things have improved greatly.'
He was concussed, again, early in the season but says he flagged it immediately with Ulster's medical staff, including Dr Michael Webb [a leading concussion expert]. On this occasion, he took his time returning to action.
'You have only got one brain,' he said.
Mindfulness exercises, meditation and a change in migraine medication all helped the prop to alleviate his condition. He admits the hits he took in the past did give him pause for thought but his commitment to compete 100% for province and country never faltered. His final match was a Champions Cup defeat to Toulon at Stade Felix Mayol, in January of this year.
Fitzpatrick arrived in Belfast, from England, in 2005 having impressed in an Exiles trial match. His future, he told SportsJOE late last year, may well have been in the building trade but rugby was his ticket to a more lucrative, sporting life.
Ulster arranged for him to work with the Belfast Harlequins groundsman, as an assistant, and he still has fond memories of being allowed to buzz around the pitch on a ride-on mower. He soon moved on to the Dungannon team, coached by Jeremy Davidson, and made his provincial debut in 2006/07.
He will now turn his attentions to life after rugby, his wife Gemma, who works as a surgeon in Belfast, and his daughter Alex.
Fitzpatrick played 98 games for Ulster but will never get the chance to join their list of centurions.