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Head rules the heart

Breaking away: Concussion has forced Michael Lipman into retirement.

Breaking away: Concussion has forced Michael Lipman into retirement. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

MICHAEL Lipman made a decision three years ago. It was one that he insists he does not regret, but it is one that now looms large over his future.

It was then that, worried about the number of head knocks that he had received playing professional rugby in England, he sought medical advice. The recommendation he received was that he should retire.

He chose to ignore it and continued playing the game he loved, not revealing the information to the club he had been playing for, Bath, or the Super Rugby franchise he was to join, the Melbourne Rebels.

For a while it looked as though his decision could pay off because he had one of the best seasons of his career last year, a standout in a struggling Rebels team that finished last in its inaugural season.

But the 32-year-old now stands on the precipice of a new life after his old one - the only one he has really known - was suddenly brought to a close last week. Lipman finally made the decision that he could have made in 2009.

Faced with worsening side-effects from concussion - the openside breakaway estimates he has had more than 30 cases throughout his career - he retired immediately, three weeks before the end of the Rebels' season.

''I don't regret it at all. It was my decision to keep going,'' says Lipman, who had not been re-signed by the Rebels beyond this year. ''A couple of professors said you should retire but I always thought there was a lot more rugby in me and I didn't really think anything of it at the time.

''I was like, 'I'm a rugby player, I'm going to keep playing because that's what I do'. I loved the game and just wanted to keep doing it and I thought that was the right decision.

''Last year I had one of the best seasons I've had. I really enjoyed playing Super Rugby and I didn't have any real episodes that were going to keep me out for some time. I didn't really regret that at all.

''I might when I'm 70,'' he adds, while laughing. ''No, it will be fine. People go against medical advice all the time. That's just the way it is because you love the game.''

Lipman had another motivation to continue playing. He received a nine-month ban in 2009 for initially refusing a drugs tests when playing for Bath. It was a controversial case that stemmed from allegations that he was among a group of players who used drugs at an end-of-season celebration. Lipman denied the claims and twice refused to submit to a hair-follicle test, but agreed six weeks after the initial request, with a negative result.

''I wanted to redeem myself and get myself back to where I should be and how I wanted to be remembered,'' he says. Lipman returned to Australia and played Sydney club rugby in 2010.

''I really should have hung up the boots, but Melbourne were really great and gave me the opportunity … that first game against the Waratahs last year was one of the biggest of my career, simply because I had to prove that I'm back and I've put it all behind me.''

Lipman admits that the recent publicity involving former players of contact sports who had suffered long-term damage from concussion had alarmed him.

As much as athletes deny it, he says the fear of what their future lives may become as a result of serious injury is in the back of their minds.

''I probably should have [told Bath about the medical advice] but at the same time I wanted to keep playing and I wanted another contract,'' he says. ''If you let them know that you have got this advice, then they'll never give you a contract. So you've got to keep it to yourself, because at the end of the day I want to play rugby and to do that you've got to hold things in, and that was all my decision.

''When I had medicals [for the Rebels] I told them I've had a few knocks here and there but never really told them the true extent of what it was, but you've got to do that to get a contract.''

But Lipman says the side-effects (dizziness and exhaustion) have now become too debilitating to continue playing.

While resting, the symptoms subside and mornings are always better than evenings. But they flare at training and he has not played since receiving several head knocks against the Western Force in round 13.

He made his decision after not being able to cope with training early last week.

''Unfortunately, Monday and Tuesday didn't go really well, and that was that really, and I decided it was time,'' he says.

''I just had the symptoms still there, the dizziness, being very clouded and quite exhausted. You feel like going to sleep where your eyes are half open, you can't think and you have difficulty concentrating.''

Lipman, who also struggles with emotional extremes and depression, says he would now like to help other athletes facing similar problems. He has been invited to speak at conferences about the still relatively little-known effects of concussion.

He will leave the sport satisfied with an impressive career.

He was born in London but grew up in Sydney and played in junior Australian teams.

He worked as a labourer by day, and nights at the Manly leagues club, while also training during the week.

Lipman played in the era of open-side break-aways such as George Smith, Phil Waugh and David Croft, so was down in the pecking order of Australian teams. He headed to England in 2001 to play for Bristol, and after two years moved to Bath.

It is a decision he has never regretted. Given his chance, Lipman impressed and won selection in the England team, which he played for 10 times, debuting against New Zealand in 2004.

''I had the opportunity to face the haka,'' he says. ''How many people get to do that? It's a dream come true no matter whatever jersey you've got on.

''When I was a kid, when I was playing for the Australian 19s, I would have loved to have played for Australia, but unfortunately that wasn't my path. The opportunity came to me to play for England and I was always going to do that. You'd be silly to turn it down.''

He is now looking enthusiastically towards his future. He has seen some of his friends' lives spiral once their playing careers have finished and he is determined not to follow.

Lipman says the support he has received from family, friends and social media has given him confidence that there is a role for him, ideally in a public relations, marketing or client relations-type role.

''Having that support network is fantastic [and I realised] I can do something other than rugby even though that's the only thing I've ever done except for labouring and working in a leagues club pouring beers for some old bloke,'' he says.

''You realise you can actually do a lot more, so it's an exciting time.''

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