On the Same Page - Head On: An All Blacks Memoir

By Kristen Phillips. Published on 18/7/2023

This is the seventh in a series of book reviews from Kristen Phillips. Reading about other people’s experiences helped Kristen emotionally and practically around her father’s illness. Her hope is that these reviews will raise awareness of the ever-increasing number of books (fiction and non-fiction) available to support and educate those of us affected by dementia.


Head On: An All Black’s memoir 
(Harper Collins, June 2023)
Carl Hayman
311 pages
Order at any book shop or online.

‘I used to play ruby and was quite good at it. I’m a man who hit a woman I loved, the mother of three of my children ... I’m a kid from a farm and still a wannabe farmer. I’m an alcoholic. I’m brain damaged and sometimes scared, sometimes lonely, I’m loving and loyal. I’m a bit of a mess.

Yeah, I’m all that, but there’s one other thing I am ...I’m not without hope.


Head On starts with Hayman’s most serious concussion in 2006, playing Australia in the Bledisloe Cup. This is followed by the Prologue, which uses his boat Rescue III as a metaphor for how Hayman sees his life to date.

The first chapter of the memoir describes some of the lowest points in Hayman’s life: while in Toulon, his marriage with Natalie Crook broke up; he was addicted to alcohol, and he fell out with two good friends. The chapters then alternate between growing up (in Ōpunake and Otago), his professional career and his post-rugby life. There is constant reference to the impact (literally) that playing rugby has had on his brain – he estimates at least 150,000 sub-concussions.

Who Would Find This Book Helpful?

For anyone who plays rugby or has a loved one playing rugby, this book will make you think seriously about the possible consequences of playing a contact sport like rugby.
Anyone who loves sport and likes to see behind the lives of professional sports- players will find this book compelling and revealing.
Anyone living with early onset dementia may be able to identify with Carl Hayman and anyone supporting someone will find information and insights into what early onset dementia can feel like from the inside.

My reflections

Firstly, a huge shout out to Carl Hayman for his openness and vulnerability in this book. I enjoy reading sports memoirs, and this is one of the most honest I’ve read. In his interview on Sunday – Knocked On (TVNZ1, Sunday 18 June), Hayman says he wants to make a difference and I’m sure Head On will get people talking and thinking.

Rugby and the All Blacks and Black Ferns are widely venerated in Aotearoa, but Head On makes it clear that, despite the great entertainment the players provide, the price of their long-term welfare is too high. Solutions need to be found swiftly that will protect players’ brains by reducing sub-concussion significantly. I hope the NZRFU, and other national bodies will act soon to prevent these kinds of injuries from happening at all.

What would need to happen for the possibility of early onset dementia and/or CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) to be eliminated from rugby and other contact sports?

What part can the New Zealand Dementia Foundation and other national bodies play in highlighting this risk? My sense is that it will be the combined voices of health professionals, players and rugby fans that will bring about this much-needed change.


Kristen’s first book, Dad, You’ve Got Dementia: Conversations with my Father is available now from the Cuba Press.

She grew up in Te Awa Kairangi / Lower Hutt. She went travelling ‘for a year’ and returned to Aotearoa after thirty years based in London.  Her father, Don, was diagnosed with dementia in 2016 after showing signs of dementia from 2011. He died in 2019.  She currently lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara with her partner, the writer Mia Farlane.  Kristen works part-time for Dementia Wellington and Dementia New Zealand. 

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