Neck surgery gave me four years in brave new professional world
As long as I can remember I’ve experienced bumps, bruises and busted teeth. I’ll never forget a year of root canal work on my front central incisor having “accidentally” headbutted a bottle in my brother Niall’s hand. I was in second year at St Clement’s Redemptorist College. On finally leaving, my dentist complimented my healthy teeth and suggested a year’s grace.
On arrival home, while playing soccer with my older brother Brian, I slipped the ball round him when he trapped it under my feet. I went head over heels, crashing teeth first into the border wall. Barely an hour out of the dentist, I returned with three teeth missing, including the aforementioned expensive root canal tooth.
In most cases it was all good fun and hardly life-threatening, or indeed life-altering. Rob Penney’s comments on Paul O’Connell this week has brought many memories to the fore.
After safely negotiating 21 months in the Cadet School I was part of the Irish Development Tour in 1993 to Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Rugby was extremely different back then but injuries were equally evident.
That December I played in the Scotland v Ireland A fixture. It was the start of my most significant injury journey as I woke up the following morning with a terrible neck pain that flowed into both arms and gave a tingling sensation down both hands.
It was awful timing as the final Irish trial was set for that week, with Denis McBride out injured and France looming in early January 1994. With a prolapsed disk I had to stop all forms of rugby for the remainder of the season.
Unfortunately not only did I stop all forms of rugby, I stopped all forms of exercise. The road back the following season was very tough, having slipped back in general fitness and the rugby pecking order. The rehab and physio did help, which also included the murky business of match injections.
In hindsight this was a very dangerous strategy that kept a prolapsed disk on the edge of disaster. I become comfortable in an environment of poor neck mobility, continuous physio and injections. This had become my norm.
Finally it gave way when playing for Old Crescent against Shannon at Thomond Park in 1997. I was in a maul of sorts when a certain Shannon secondrow entered, driving into my lower back. This happened hundreds of times and usually without incident but this time I felt a form of whiplash and a sensation in my neck.
In the adrenalin of the moment the pain passes. The following morning I woke up as I had done many times before – in pain – and was given anti-inflammatory medication, which was the norm.
I’ll never forget where I was when I woke up the following Monday morning, as the pain was excruciating. For more than two weeks I listened to the 2FM news every hour on the hour 24/7. No sooner would I doze off but my head would flop to one side, causing massive pain and waking me up.
I wasn’t surrounded by the medical team O’Connell would have today. I was a club player in an amateur environment, so off I went for countless MRI scans, seeking advice from orthopaedic doctors and neurosurgeons. We had now entered the realm of life-altering injuries and without the parachute of the professional game. It was 1997 and I simply gave up rugby.
I had major concerns regarding my general health and, as an Army officer, I was in adventures more often than most. Having sought advice from many, some who reckoned surgery would have me back playing rugby in three months, I was undecided as I had resigned myself to never playing again.
I was very impressed with Mr Jack Phillips’s calmness. He had my interest at heart and together we planned the next steps. I had surgery on C5-C6 in early 1998; by then I was three stone overweight.
As a sports man, surgery is par for the course, and the last things I was conscious of were the dangers associated with general anaesthetics or the risks of major surgery.
Donal Lenihan, having noticed my absence from the sport, asked me why in a chance meeting at the Castletroy Park Hotel. He had a similar story to tell regarding his own neck. He went on to play for three international seasons after surgery. England’s record-breaking prop Jason Leonard did likewise.
The following day, well over a year out of rugby, I started to train again and within three months I lost that three stone and joined Lansdowne FC. I was simply happy to be playing. The following year I was offered a Leinster contract and granted leave of absence from the Defence Forces. Six weeks into my professional career I was made captain, adoring every minute of the four years; whether playing or grumpily holding a tackle bag.
I especially enjoyed the frustration of watching, learning and developing my rugby under the tutelage of professional coaches, and particularly in observing Keith Gleeson, from whom I learned so much. Although I was never the same player, I would never have experienced four years at Leinster and all that has followed but for surgery in 1998.
Two of our greatest ever players have recently had major surgery but, outside the obvious talent gap, the difference between them and me was the amateurism of my journey. I was hugely exposed to danger for the seasons prior to my surgery. Post-surgery and with professional rehab and recovery, the danger had all but vanished and I never missed a match due to my neck. Ironically, my arthritic knees forced my retirement, with my neck the best part of me.