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Nic and Louis Grimoldby on rugby, Parkinson’s and the need to unionise
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Nic and Louis Grimoldby on rugby, Parkinson’s and the need to unionise

As several of the Super League’s biggest stars try to establish a new players’ union, the man who led one when the competition launched is appealing for them to get organised and prevent the current generation of rugby players – including his son – from suffering like he has.

Nic Grimoldby ended his professional rugby career 30 years ago with a try for Sheffield Eagles in the final game of the Stones Bitter Championship season. The birth of his triplets – Isaac, Ella and Louis – was imminent. Now, as Louis’ own playing career enters its twilight, his father is facing another challenge: Parkinson’s.

Nic played seven seasons of professional rugby league, appearing on the old main stages of Headingley, Central Park and Knowsley Road. He also worked as an interior designer, even decorating The Shard and a string of London penthouses. Last autumn, having retired at the age of 62, he decided to follow his teenage dream and enrol in a fine art degree at the De Montfort University in Leicester to work on his sculpture and cubist and expressionist art.

During the assessment process he was diagnosed with dyslexia, which explained lifelong learning problems. A month later, he was given a second more serious diagnosis that would affect the rest of his life. Something showed up on a brain scan and he had a slight tremor in his painting hand. Nic went to see a consultant. Within 20 minutes he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. “Blunt as anything,” he says. “It took me a while to process. I would have preferred just the dyslexia, thanks!”

He is determined to be positive. He is training for a mini triathlon and considers the hand tremor that has forced him to change his artistic style “good therapy”. His 6ft 2in frame remains lithe, his steely serious face gives nothing away, until his eyes reveal a smile at a joke. What he assumed was a dental problem was actually the start of hypomimia – or “sad face syndrome” – and he put his loss of taste and smell down to Covid: both were actually signs of Parkinson’s. So far, his other symptoms are primarily anxiety-based: “I never used to worry about that shit,” he says. Although it remains unsaid today, both father and son know what is to come.

Nic is one of over 500 players from both codes working with sports lawyers Rylands Garth to pursue cases against the RFU and RFL in regard to brain injuries. “I’m not doing it for the money,” he says. “I want recognition that they’re looking after current players, that they’ve learned something. I wore headgear all my career but I don’t know if it did any good. Where’s the research? In a game I’d probably do 25 hit ups and 25 tackles, and hit tackle bags in training three times a week. Those impacts are affecting me now. I asked the Parkinson’s nurse and consultant if rugby had made a difference. Without hesitation they both said: ‘Yes.’”

We discuss the disproportionately high number of former sportsmen who die with Parkinson’s, dementia or MND. Nic already knows two Sheffield teammates with early onset Alzheimer’s. “Three of us from the same team – I don’t know about everyone else.” We speculate that maybe several members of every team are suffering now. A huge number.

Having relaunched the Rugby League Players Association in the 1990s, Nic is now fighting the cause for his generation and his son’s. He has a message for Ryan Brierley and his Super League colleagues who are attempting to finally get their voices heard. “If they want any advice I can tell them how not to do it!” he says. “Super League was just starting when I went to Maurice Lindsay and said we need a percentage of the television money. I’d been to the PFA and knew that’s how it worked in football. We had a lot of success – about 70% of the players in the top two divisions signed up, but one or two of the top stars didn’t support it. Maurice didn’t want to accept that we even existed.

“The mistake we made was being tied to a trade union. I tried to wrest control away from the GMB but they just shut me down. I had to walk away around 1998. Players should be an integral part of all discussions, including anyone being paid to play, not just the top level. They are the game’s assets.”

Father and son each dabbled in one code before focusing on the other. Raised in Worksop, Nic studied interior design in Great Yarmouth – “I wanted to live by the sea” – before a teammate at his local union club invited him to give league a go at Peckham Pumas. That led to a trial at second division Southend Invicta, where he played under a false name. The Bradford Northern programme listed “Nick Grimoldey” while Wakefield Trinity called him “Nick Grimaldi”. “Not a very good disguise,” he admits. “But I didn’t want to get banned from rugby union.”

He then spent two seasons at Fulham but, when they failed to pay him for renouncing his amateur status, Grimoldby claimed free agency, forcing a move to Sheffield Eagles. “This is where my militancy started,” he says. “The money wasn’t the best – Doncaster offered more, but Sheffield were looking good for promotion and it just felt right. They had a good bunch of lads and Gary Hetherington is quite persuasive. We went up and stayed up.”

Spending five seasons in the Eagles pack with internationals Anthony Farrell, Sonny Nickle, Hugh Waddell and Paul Broadbent, while Mark Aston and Daryl Powell guided the team around, did he ever feel like a fish out of water? “All the time. Being an art student with long hair, and an interior designer, you can imagine the stick I got, especially up north. Paul Broadbent used to say: ‘I don’t understand your hair, but you’re a good player!’ So I was accepted.”

Nic spent his off-season travelling: one working on boats in the West Indies, another at Brisbane club Fortitude Valleys Diehards. “I was the only Englishman. I got sent off for the first time: there was a big brawl and after the ref separated everyone he said ‘Right Pommy, you’re off.’ I think some of my own team were punching me!”

Louis Grimoldby playing for Bedford Blues against Sale Sharks in 2023View image in fullscreen

Adventure is in the genes. Louis, a talented union fly-half at school, tried league at Northampton Demons before flying to Australia the day after his GCSEs to spend the summer with Newcastle Knights. “Dad said it would toughen me up,” he recalls. “I absolutely loved it.” On his return Louis played union for England Under-18s and league for London Broncos academy with Mike McMeeken. He was considering signing for Leeds Rhinos when Premiership champions Harlequins called. He took his dad’s advice: “There’s more money in union and you won’t get beaten up as much.”

Grimoldby made a dozen appearances for Harlequins under Conor O’Shea before spending four life-changing seasons in Paris at Massy Essonne. The past five have been back home, in the Championship, first with Ampthill, now their neighbours Bedford Blues.

“The medical treatment in France was first class, even in the third division,” says Louis, who teaches RE at a local secondary school. “They’d scan anything. We’d use the cryogenic chamber on a Monday morning, they were that advanced. It was a cultural thing. Championship clubs here can’t afford scans if they can avoid it.”

Louis has been knocked out four times in 11 years, the last being the worst. “If it was four in five months I’d consider stopping. I know the risks.”

Nic wishes he had stopped. “I’m supporting the legal case because I want to see more openness,” he says. “Who is doing research, what is it and why? They need to publicise the results and say what they are doing about it. Are they talking to old players? Because of Rob Burrow, god bless him, we know how many ex players have motor neurone disease. You’re 15 times more likely to get MND if you play rugby. With Parkinson’s it’s three times more likely, but we don’t know how many ex-players have it. Ask Louis, if he has a family would he be putting them on a rugby field?”

Louis ponders the question for several moments. “Only if you can make a good career of it, be at the top level where you are well looked after. If there isn’t the medical care and protection, no. If I was offered a Championship contract at 19, I’d say: ‘Don’t bother.’”

What about Nic? “If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t. I don’t want this.”

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Source: theguardian.com