Incredible as it may sound some well-known professional rugby players have had to endure and overcome physical and mental disabilities to continue their rugby careers successfully, the adage, no-one is perfect definitely rings true with the following international rugby stars of which some are no longer with us. Even in lower league rugby there are quite a few heart warming stories of players who against the odds with determination managed to play the beloved sport of rugby, the greatest game ever.Jonah Lomu, (b.12/5/1975 d.18/11/2015 ) Jonah was a strapping great lad from New Zealand, his parents were Tongan and lived in Auckland. He was the world’s youngest ever player to represent any national team, in his case the All Blacks, at 19 years old. His illustrious and sensational professional career spanned 13 years before his serious liver condition forced him to retire in 2007. Jonah had been diagnosed with Nephrotic Syndrome in 1995 but continued to play even though he put himself in serious risk. He received a liver transplant in 2004 and returned to playing rugby. He died suddenly at the early age of 40 in 2015 due to complications. Jonah was an explosive and powerful winger, he stood at 1.96m and weighed 120Kg in his prime and was capable of running 100m around 11 seconds, he remains a rugby icon and hero and forever in every rugby enthusiasts memory.
Henry Slade, (b.19/3/1993) Currently an England international and Exeter Chiefs Gallagher Premiership player. Despite his disability of Type 1 Diabetes which can cause alarming effects of possibly losing the ability to do simple everyday tasks he continues to play while monitoring his condition closely to the point that he often takes an insulin shot at halftime during matches. Even more troubling is that he is wary of getting the C-19 COVID vaccination as classed as a vulnerable person making his decision to vaccinate against contracting the virus a very difficult step. However, his rugby career is still flourishing and he continues to enthral the crowds at matches with his blistering runs and match-play moves. He went professional at the age of 18 and has been an Exeter Chiefs player since 2011 as a fly-half, centre or fullback and the now 28 year old has earned 40 Caps playing for England.
Ian McKinley, (b.4/12/1989) This is a remarkable story of determination and love for the game as Ian was totally blinded in his left eye while playing for Leinster RFC in 2011 which as everyone thought would call for early retirement, initially it did. 3 years later in 2014 he began his comeback with Italian side Leonorso, a tier 3 side after taking coaching contracts there. Aided with special eye glasses he proved to be a worthy player with only one true eye and in 2015 was offered a place with top flight league side Zebre Rugby and the following year a move to Bennetton Rugby Club, he eventually gained Italian citizenship making him eligible for the national team which he debuted for in 2017 earning 9 Caps. Ian was born in Dublin, Ireland but never played for his original country which opened the doors for him as an Italian national player. Ian’s position on the field was flyhalf and kicked the last points scored in his first appearance for Italy in their win over Fiji. He retired as a player in 2020 and became an assistant coach at Rainy Old Boys RFC in county Londonderry, N. Ireland. A remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards.
Lewis Moody (b.12/6/1978) Lewis or Mad Dog as players and fans nicknamed him because of his tenacity to gain or regain possession of the rugby ball. This 1.92m Leicester Tigers & England flanker was fearless in tackling and created fear in opposing players but he kept his disability a secret from his club and country team-mates. In 2005 he discovered that he was suffering from colitis, a serious ulcerative bowel condition and acutely painful at times. Lewis founded a charity to assist people with his type of disease along with other charitable work and charities. He continued to play rugby at the highest level until 2011 when he retired from international rugby and then a year later from club rugby. In his pro-career he racked up 223 appearances for the Tigers and 71 games for England and was the team captain for the 2011 RWC campaign. Lewis, a RWC winner in 2003, is England’s most decorated player in the history of rugby and awarded an MBE honour on behalf of his generous charity work.
Nathan Charles (b.9/1/1989) The only known pro-player in the world suffering from cystic fibrosis playing a contact sport which is a life threatening condition affecting the lungs and other major organs. Nathan born in Sydney was diagnosed early in his life but it never stopped him from realising his dream to play for Australia. Australia’s head coach, Ewen Mckenzie, in 2013 said "If you look at the symptoms and classic outcomes of cystic fibrosis it's not a great scenario from a sporting point of view, but he seems to have defied science and defied logic." Nathan represented the Wallabies 4 times and played his final seasons of rugby in France and UK at Bath Rugby and finally retired in 2018. Living with such a condition that could take your life at any moment shows just how determined and resilient physically and mentally Nathan is. In 2021 the ex-hooker was appointed as the new CEO of Rugby WA which run grassroot and development programs in Western Australia.
On a more local or community note we have Ryan from Selby RFC who is confined to a wheelchair, however, at the Krakow Rugby Festival 2018 he insisted on doing the ‘Slider’ which is a tarpaulin under the posts for players to score with a spectacular water slide motion. He was pushed in his wheelchair at first but for Ryan that was not good enough, so teammates got him out and assisted in his Slider Glide like the champion he is.
Much is to be said for these brave players who not only battle on the rugby pitch but battle hard in their private lives too. The hierarchy in rugby federations acknowledge the problems some players are prone to especially after retiring from the sport and in recent times action has been taken to provide assistance that was lacking and also improving regulations regarding head contact that with technology of today reveals the onset of dementia caused by head traumas incurred over time.