Following the recent sad news that Australia and Brumbies back Christian Lealifano has been diagnosed with Leukaemia, we take a look at three rugby stars who overcame adversity to play again.
1. Schalk Burger
One of South Africa’s greatest ever forwards, the two-time South African Player of the Year has enjoyed a glittering career. Since making his Springbok debut in 2003, the 33-year-old has picked up 86 caps, appearing in four World Cups, including the Boks’ 2007 World Cup triumph.
While for his Super Rugby franchise the Stormers, Burger helped the Cape Town-based side to a 2010 Super Rugby runners up spot and to 2011 and 2015 South African conference titles.
A huge physical presence, the 6ft, 4in, 17st, 9lbs back rower is known for his powerful ball carrying, destructive tackling and amazing engine.
But the 2004 IRB Player of the Year’s greatest achievement is surviving death. In 2013 he was so ill that doctors advised his family to say their goodbyes. After having a cyst close to his spinal cord removed he contracted bacterial meningitis, which led him to losing 30kg, going into a coma, spending six weeks in hospital and left him close to death’s door.
In an interview with South African newspaper Business Day (via the Independent) last year, Burger had this to say about his near-death experience:
“I was seriously ill and battling for my life. On about the third day in hospital my wife phoned my family and closest friends and told them to come and say goodbye because I was on my way out.
“I was conscious of it. But 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.”
But the popular flanker managed to win his greatest battle and made a remarkable comeback to once again don the Springboks shirt the following year, and then star in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
This amazing return to rugby after coming so close to death saw him handed the Comeback of the Year award at the 2015 Laureus World Sports Awards in Shanghai.
2. Mathew Rees
Excellent in the scrum and powerful with ball in hand, the tough as teak 35-year-old Cardiff Blues hooker has enjoyed an excellent career. Since making his professional debut for Pontypridd back in 2001, ‘Smiler’ has racked up over 250 first class appearances, starring for Pontypridd, Celtic Warriors, the Scarlets and the Blues.
Wales’ most capped hooker with 60 caps, the 6ft, 17st unit has won two grand slams, shone in the Lions’ narrow 2009 series defeat to South Africa and appeared in the 2007 World Cup.
However, in October 2013 the former Wales skipper faced his biggest ever challenge when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Tonyrefail-born Rees immediately underwent five months of intensive chemotherapy, facing up to the possibility of death and a real possibility that his career was over.
Thankfully the treatment was was successful and six months later Rees was back on the field, packing down for the Blues against Ulster.
In an interview with Wales Online in 2014 Rees spoke about the most difficult period in his life:
“I think the most important thing in life is your health. If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything. Obviously there were some days where I thought I would never play the game again and some days where I thought I can get back on the field. It was just a case of being positive all the way and speaking to the nurses on a regular basis about the success rate, where I was going.
“It’s been tough, the start of it, being diagnosed with testicular cancer and going through the treatment. But I’ve been pretty positive all the way through. One goal was getting over that and making sure that for me personally was trying to get back on the field as well. I had some dark days, but it’s a challenge and I have overcome that and obviously come out the other side and it’s just good to be back involved in the rugby side of it.”
Remarkably he was able to continue training during the treatment and only seven months after being diagnosed with cancer Rees was named in Wales’ tour to South Africa, where he came off the bench in the second test to pick up his 58th cap and become Wales’ most capped No. 2.
3. Jillion Potter
One of the United States Women’s Sevens captains, Potter has appeared in 22 competitions for the Eagles since making her sevens debut back in 2013. A well-known figure on the women’s sevens circuit, the Texan helped her nation to a bronze medal at the Women’s Sevens Rugby World Cup in Moscow in 2013.
Prior to 2013 she had represented her nation in the 15s game, playing for the US Eagles at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup in France after making her international debut in 2007.
Dynamic, with great hands and an excellent skill set, Potter has notched up 58 tries at international level and helped the Eagles to an impressive fifth place finish at this month’s Olympic Games.
But the fact that the 30-year-old is still playing at all is a miracle in itself. Whilst preparing for the Women’s World Cup in 2010, she broke her neck while playing for the US in Canada.
In an interview with CNN last month she described the injury as ‘devastating’.
She thought that she would maybe never play again but amazingly a year later returned to action for the national team, thanking a ‘great surgeon’ for her remarkable comeback, and because of the kind of neck break she had suffered she was able to play again.
“Because of my surgery, because it was only a level one fusion, it was safe to return to play. Doctors were like, ‘You just have to wait until the bone fuses, and we’ll unleash you.”
But in 2014 she once again suffered a hammer blow, when it was discovered that she had synovial sarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer. Months of intensive chemotherapy, where she kept active through walking and Yoga and the support of her family, helped her overcome her biggest challenge and once again don her boots.
Returning for the 2015/16 World Sevens series she appeared in 22 of her team’s 29 matches and booked her place in the Eagles squad for Rio 2016. A remarkable comeback.
These three stars’ triumph over adversity is inspiring and offers inspiration for Lealifano as he fights his biggest battle.
Get well soon, Christian!
Hefin Jones, Pundit Arena
Read More About: British & Irish Lions, broken neck, cancer, cardiff blues, Christian lealiifano, DHL Stormers, Jillion Potter, Leaukemia, Mathew Rees, rio olympics, rugby news, rugby world cup 2007, rugby world cup 2015, schalk burger, US Womens Eagles Fifteens, US Womens Eagles Sevens team, Womens Rugby world cup sevens 2013