With a unique tribute game being played in his honour at Twickenham tomorrow the story of how Australian international Rob Horne’s career ended at Northampton Saints is a testing one for rugby fans.
It is full of coincidences and resonances that somehow sharpen the cruelty of it as if last season wasn’t cruel enough.
For supporters who complain when they feel that players aren’t giving that fabled 110 per cent (which is surely all of us at some time) it’s chastening. You wouldn’t wish Rob’s fate on anyone, let alone a player who was fighting so hard turn around a season which was at times humiliatingly bad for Saints fans.
Rob was playing at 13, and 13 seconds into the East Midlands derby at Welford Road he made the tackle that damaged his brachial plexus nerve beyond repair.
He was captaining the club for the first time having earned the honour for his performance in training during the week. The coaches voted on it and unanimously agreed – he had added something extra that was worthy of the reward of leading the team out.
The corresponding home fixture earlier in the season had been Rob’s debut. He had been one of the bright spots in a very tough season. He seemed to rejuvenate the back line and had that rare knack of helping the players around him play better too.
Saints were often floundering last season but after Rob was stretchered away they completed an away win at Welford Road, a feat that had not been achieved for over a decade. It was hard to believe it was the same side that was getting skinned relentlessly by Saracens.
It might be too much to say it was the one good thing that happened to Saints last season but there are probably people with season tickets in their hands now who bought them because of that result. No-one would deny Rob’s inspirational contribution.
You couldn’t have a better example of a player giving it all for the cause or one who makes you wonder what might have been had he been able to see out the last few years of his career as an undoubted Saints hero.
The Rob Horne I saw before the East Midlands derby, which has been moved to Twickenham and dedicated to him, was not letting any of the sheer bloody unfairness of it get to him.
He is in fact a picture of the kind of dignity and philosophical attitude you would forgive him for not having.
“At risk of making it a sob story – which is not what I want to do at all – the hardest moment when I came out of the initial exploration surgery and they said the nerve was no longer attached to my spinal chord and it was gone. But hearing that from the get go, from day one I knew the outcome, I have had time to deal and cope and come to an understanding,” he said.
“Like anything you do face all sorts of different emotions. You get frustrated at some points and feel elated and other times. It’s a new reality for me. I hope that through my approach and what I go on to achieve I hope that I can promote the brachial plexus injuries and these types of nerve injuries. It is not uncommon. There is a community that suffers this injury. It is a high impact injury.
“I have met an ex serviceman shot through his chest, a young lady who was skiing, it can happen through various ways. It is living with a paralysis. Early on you are coping with different things. I have got a lot of muscle wastage and just through not playing rugby I have lost a lot of weight anyway. Living with paralysis there are perceptions around that, I am finding that it is about the way I approach things.”
Rob, having moved his life out to Northamptonshire has now returned to Australia and is finishing some studies before deciding what he will do next.
He joked: “I am a retired athlete, I have been running around a field and in the gym for ten years. I don’t want to do anything.”
However he is also aware that the challenge he faces now, living with pain and paralysis of his right arm, is as big as any he has faced in his sporting career.
“To live with paralysis is something very new, I am still learning ways to do things. It is funny how the body is. When something is taken away from you you become pretty innovative and find other ways to do things. You surprise yourself,” he said.
“With most of the nerve injuries there is constant chronic pain but you find ways to deal with that. My capacity to deal with the pain has grown hugely since it happened. Your brain is a pretty amazing thing. The life changing nature of it all is you do confront things and operate in a different way. I have been amazed by how the brain can operate in different ways.
“I am just getting on my feet, getting set up again. I have got a bit of study to knock over. I am sure I will have some connection to the game.”
He masks the pain superbly well but there are clues. He still cannot bear to watch back the footage of the moment it happened.
“It was my first game leading the team out, that being a special game at Welford Road. We had a big week changing a few things up and looking at a few things. We were looking forward to that game. I had my family in the crowd.
“When it happened I was fully conscious the whole time. I haven’t looked at the footage – I couldn’t put myself through it. I have been told I am trying to get up and I can’t and essentially that is what I am trying to do.
“You don’t think anything is that wrong. Initially I couldn’t move my right leg but I kicked and kicked and got that moving. I thought I had disclocated my right shoulder and that is what I said to the medics: ‘I’m all good but I think my shoulder is dislocated’. But probably the way the doctors were – their body language and demeanour – I was lying there thinking: why are they approaching me like this?”
The injury shocked fans and playing staff alike, and although it is an extraordinary honour to have a game moved to Twickenham and dedicated to him, it does not feel in any way excessive to anyone except perhaps to Rob, who has a reputation for staying down to earth.
“It is such a massive occasion, it is really quite special for someone that grew up in Sidney and I’m going to be watching my team go out there in the derby which is one of the biggest games in English rugby,” said Rob.
“It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. It’s bittersweet. To be recognised in one of the big games in world rugby, being a very proud Saints player and having experienced and knowing what it means, this game for the club and the community, just to be involved in this game.
“Knowing me they were pretty cautious about how they approached it. It doesn’t come naturally to me to put myself out there like that. Even the end of season awards was a bit of challenge to go to and in the end it was a really great night to share with my team mates.
“It is humbling, it is unfathomable, I started playing rugby in Sidney, union on a Saturday, league on a Sunday and now for my name to be associated with one of the biggest games in rugby it is pretty overwhelming.
“It is such a loyal and passionate fan base. It was one of the big reasons why I went to Northampton because I knew the passion for the game and the club. Immediately that is what I felt. I invested a lot emotionally into the club, to go there and perform and play well. I feel like the Northampton supporters took that on and saw that. It is a big disappointment I cant play on and finish the way I wanted to finish there.”
He doesn’t blame rugby for his injury and is not even comfortable with seeing himself as a special case now, living with paralysis. No-one intended for him to be hurt and as far as he is concerned it was a freak accident.
“The margins are so tiny. No one goes out there to hurt anyone. It’s easy to talk about but I feel like it’s a non issue,” he said.
“Everyone has their own things they are going through and this is mine.”
Rob is incredibly generous about Northampton despite events.
He said: “The highlight of my career? There were lots. I played a full career, I was closer to the end than the start. When you win a comp that is massive. First cap for Australia. Playing in two world cups. My debut for Northampton against Leicester at Franklins Gardens. My whole year in Northampton was a highlight for me. It was a really good fit.”
When Rob finds a new role he expects to be involved with rugby somehow. For now it’s about his wife and children in Australia but the steely determination he showed in a Saints shirt is still evident.
He said: “I am determined to live the life I was going to live, if not better.”
If he says it, I believe him.