The odds-defying comeback stories competing for World Cup stardom
Twisted knees, blown out shoulders and metal plates pinned to various bones, comeback stories in sport so often originate from disastrous, potentially career-ending on-field/court/pitch injuries. However, the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan could feature two stories that far surpass broken ankles and hamstring tears that have plagued some of your favourite rugby stars.
When we talk about comeback stories in sport, it usually involves the recovery from the disastrous twisting, breaking and stretching of various bones, muscles and tendons, only to lead to an eventual return to the highest echelons of sport. Hour after hour spent in the gym rehabilitating a blown out knee, a broken fibula or dislocated shoulder with top physios day-in, day-out. Think Springbok captain and centre Jean de Villiers and his artificial knee ligaments in 2015 and David Pocock’s multiple knee reconstructions and reinstatement as rugby union’s top pilfering openside for the Wallabies. But ahead of the 2019 World Cup in Japan, we might be set to see two of the sport’s most inspirational, odds-defying comeback stories from not just sporting injuries, but life-threatening illnesses.
Brumbies fly-half/centre Christian Leali’ifano has fielded at least one rugby-related layoff and recovery in his career, suffering a dramatic knockout during the first minute of the first of three British and Irish Lions Test in 2013 and recovering to help guide the Wallabies to a victory in the second game, kicking eleven of Australia’s 16-15 win in Melbourne. The one-time Ulster man has also dealt with the traditional minor injuries that come with the rap sheet of a professional rugby player. Of course, none of which match up to his inspirational recovery from Leukaemia in 2016 to potential World Cup stardom in 2019.
Leali’ifano’s diagnosis rocked the rugby community three years ago, inspiring Brumbies teammates, both current and past, to shave their heads in support, including Argentinian scrum-half Tomos Cubelli and France-based duo of international and club teammates Matt Giteau and Nic White.
The cancer that attacks the body’s blood-forming tissues, including bone marrow and the lymphatic system, could and have been enough for Leali’ifano to call it a day on his career three years ago and settle on living a normal, healthy life – no one would have thought any the worse, I’m sure many would have praised his dedication to being with his loved ones. But, we know he instead defied the odds and has since returned not only to full health, but the strength and fitness of a professional rugby player.
Leali’ifano’s salvation came in the form of his sister, whose full first name is literally Salvation, but is known as Sally. Sally was her brother’s bone marrow donor, saving not only his hard-earned, high-profile career as a professional athlete, but his life. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.
Leali’ifano’s recovery and return to the life of a professional athlete is one thing, but the Brumbies skipper is now being touted to start at fly-half for Australia at the World Cup in Japan later this year. Imagine the bleak experience of watching your once world-class fitness levels fall below that of the heavy-footed frontrowers, despite living the lifestyle and making the sacrifices of a professional athlete. Then imagine absorbing the news that this loss of hard-earned fitness is because you have cancer, being told on an unassuming Thursday morning that a life-threatening disease had taken root and that you were about to undergo the rigours of chemotherapy on the Saturday morning. Jump ahead two years later and you could be guiding the Wallabies in what is set to be the most closely-contested World Cup in history – what a ride.
The 31-year-old’s recovery from Leukaemia, a challenge greater than the majority of the world’s population will face in their lifetime, was followed with the decision to spend five months away from his family in Northern Ireland, over 17,000 kilometres away, with the aim of picking up game time during the Super Rugby off-season and returning to his club side at full match fitness for the start of the new season. When the much-anticipated World Cup comes around, there will be little competition to rival Leali’ifano’s miraculous return. However, the competition may yet be there.
A less-publicised comeback story is not far away, there is a second world cup hopeful in-line to head to Japan after overcoming a potentially life-threatening condition. In fact, Leali’ifano shared a Super Rugby pitch with him only last month.
At the end of 2015, during the peak of his career, Springbok winger Cornal Hendricks was advised he would never play rugby again after discovering a heart defect that could cause cardiac arrest and cost him his life. Employing the same dogged determinism later displayed by Leali’ifano, Hendricks fought the diagnosis and went on to be cleared to play by the world’s top two leading specialists in the field. The former Cheetahs and Stormers wing was set to stage his comeback and return to the highest level with a cash-rich deal with French giants Toulon, but the three-times European Champions opted not to sign the 12-times-capped winger, with concerns surrounding his medical condition thought to be the reason.
The Boland Cavaliers product bounced between the Stormers, the Southern Kings and the Blue Bulls before finally making his Super Rugby return for the Bulls during the 2019 season, he hadn’t played a game of professional rugby since 2015 with the Cheetahs.
Hendricks may only have scored three tries in thirteen games for the Bulls this season, but the 31-year-old was back to something close to his career-best try-scoring form during the Bulls quarter-final defeat to the Hurricanes last weekend, scoring two tries in situations he ought to have been ushered into touch. Instead, back on form and standing at a healthy 6ft2” and 92kg, Hendricks escaped the attentions of All Blacks hooker Dane Coles and young winger Salesi Rayasi with a neat goosestep before fielding the final challenge of captain TJ Perenara in the 33rd minute.
Hendricks also defied the risk of fading away during the latter stages of the fixture, taking Handre Pollard’s cross-field kick in the 58th minute, brushing aside the tackle of All Blacks fullback Jordie Barrett and beating the challenge of outside centre Peter Umaga-Jensen to the white line for a brace.
Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has two positions in his back three nailed down heading into the shortened Rugby Championship that will prelude the World Cup, with former Wasps fullback Willie le Roux stationed at fullback and Lions wing Aphiwe Dyantyi on the left wing. A starting role on the right wing and further squad spots are currently contested between Vodacom Sharks duo Sibusiso Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi and Toulouse-based Cheslin Kolbe, the latter of whom has set Europe alight with his evasive footwork and impressive defence for a man of his diminutive stature over the last two seasons.
While Kolbe is likely a nailed on World Cup squad member, Hendricks may be able to steal a charge on the Sharks pair of Nkosi and Mapimpi, offering two points of difference otherwise lacking in the Springboks’ back three, size and experience.
Indeed, former Springbok winger Breyton Paulse and Namibian and Saracens flanker Jacques Burger are amongst those expressing their support for the odds-defying 31-year-old winger to be returned to current Springbok status.
We currently stand a good chance of seeing both Leali’ifano and Hendricks playing in Japan later this year after overcoming potentially life-altering struggles, and what a sight that would be.