Six players who made inspirational returns to the rugby pitch

We take a look at six players who have dealt with hardships off the pitch in order to thrive on it.

Injuries can be an unfortunate consequence of playing elite-level sport, requiring weeks and sometimes months of intense rehab to get back out onto the pitch.

But, what happens when the ailment and timeframe of recovery are not so straightforward? 

We take a look at six inspirational stories of players who have dealt with serious illness away from the pitch and managed to maintain their competitive edge on it.

Jillion Potter

USA Women’s Eagles forward Jillion Potter had already overcome a career-threatening neck injury when she found a tumour underneath her jaw and tongue in 2014. Her doctor initially believed the tumour was benign, and gave Potter the all-clear to represent her country at Rugby World Cup 2014. 

However, the tumour continued to grow while Potter was in France, and she was eventually diagnosed with Stage 3 synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that develops in cells around joints and tendons. “Once we had that and we had a plan, we knew what we needed to do in terms of treatment,” Potter said in 2016. She took a year off rugby and underwent both chemotherapy and radiotherapy. “Through the whole ordeal, I thought about rugby and how I wanted to come back,” she added.

Potter captained the USA as she made her comeback at the Emirates Airline Dubai Sevens in December, 2015. Nine months later, she played all six matches as rugby returned to the Olympic Games in Rio, where the USA finished fifth.  Potter was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma for a second time at the start of 2017, but beat it again. In 2018, she served as an assistant referee at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco and was one of seven recipients of the inaugural World Rugby Women's Executive Leadership Scholarship.

Schalk Burger

In 2013, Springbok legend Schalk Burger contracted bacterial meningitis following a procedure to remove a cyst close to his spinal cord. The Rugby World Cup-winner became so ill that his family were advised to say their goodbyes. “I was seriously ill and battling for my life,” Burger said in 2015. “I was literally just fighting from heartbeat to heartbeat. And every heartbeat felt like a knife stabbing in my brain. At times I felt like just stopping, but I could literally feel myself then slipping and would have to fight again.”

Burger refused to stop fighting and found the strength to make a full recovery. He returned to the rugby pitch in late 2013, playing for Western Province in the Currie Cup as well as the Barbarians. His form for the Stormers in 2014 earned him a recall to the South Africa squad, and he played in wins over Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and England. In April, 2015 Burger received the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award, and later that year he was part of the Springbok squad that finished third at Rugby World Cup 2015.

Jonah Lomu

According to Jonah Lomu, his life changed on 18 June, 1995. It was on that bright Sunday in Cape Town that Lomu confirmed — if confirmation was needed by that stage — his unbelievable talent with four tries against England in the Rugby World Cup 1995 semi-final. “That game changed everything for me,” he said in 2014. However, in truth, Lomu’s life had been altered prior to the tournament, when he was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a rare kidney condition.

Only Lomu and his doctor, John Mayhew knew the full extent of his illness, which was hidden even from then-All Blacks coach, John Hart. Lomu’s achievements on the rugby pitch are even more remarkable when considered in the context of the kidney disease that ultimately shortened his life. The World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee played 63 tests for New Zealand, scoring 37 tries — including a Rugby World Cup joint-record 15 in 11 tournament matches. Lomu also excelled at sevens and won Rugby World Cup Sevens 2001 as well as a Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1998.

Lomu’s last test appearance came in 2002, after which he was forced to hang up his boots. He underwent a kidney transplant in 2004, and was able to return to the rugby pitch, playing for the Cardiff Blues and North Harbour between 2005-2006. However, his body rejected his transplant in 2011 and four years later, while waiting for a second transplant, Lomu died from a heart attack at the age of 40.

Laura Kapo

Laura Kapo admits she was in “a bit of a daze” when she received the news that she had sarcoma in her leg, in September 2015. But, despite the diagnosis the Richmond Women’s stalwart was determined not to miss that evening’s training session. “My kit was in the car anyway and very much my mindset was ‘I’ve got something else to do’ and for me it has been the best distraction,” she said last year.

Just four months after her diagnosis, Kapo helped Richmond win the Women’s Premiership final, coming on in the second half of a 28-17 victory against Saracens at Twickenham Stoop. Kapo continued to play, thanks to a modified training programme, until last summer when she agreed to temporarily stop due to exercise-induced epileptic fits. She was named Women’s Player of the Year at last year’s National Rugby Awards.

Christian Leali’ifano

Wallabies fly-half Christian Leali’ifano was diagnosed with leukaemia in August, 2016, just over a month after he had been involved in Australia’s three-match test series against England. Leali’ifano immediately went into hospital for treatment, and over the next few months the Brumbies playmaker underwent a bone-marrow transplant and chemotherapy. At one point of his treatment, Leali’ifano was too weak to hold his infant son.

However, the New Zealand-born star never gave up hope that he would make a recovery, and less than a year after his diagnosis he was back on a rugby pitch. Leali’ifano made a cameo appearance in the Brumbies’ Super Rugby quarter-final defeat to the Hurricanes on 21 July, 2017. He subsequently agreed a short-term contract with Pro14 side Ulster, in order to build up his fitness, and returned to the Brumbies for the following Super Rugby season. His form in 2018 and 2019 was such that he was included in Australia’s Rugby World Cup 2019 squad. In Japan, he made four appearances and started the quarter-final defeat to England.

Clément Castets

Young French prop Clément Castets had looked set for stardom when he captained his country at World Rugby U20 Championship 2016 in England. However, just a few months later Castets was diagnosed with a cavernoma, a cluster of abnormal blood vessels usually found on the brain, which can cause bleeding, seizures and other symptoms. 

Castets was allowed to resume playing in October, 2016 and he made his professional debut for Toulouse during the 2017-18 season. However, in January, 2018 the prop suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, which required surgery and put his career in doubt. Just seven months after being operated on, though, the prop was back on the rugby pitch for Toulouse. He signed a three-year contract extension a month later, in October, 2018, and was called up by France coach Fabien Galthié ahead of the Six Nations 2020 match against Scotland in March.

READ MORE: 10 of the greatest rugby match comebacks of all time >>

Last updated: Sep 7, 2020, 9:47:29 AM
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