Home At the Bottom of a Ruck At the Bottom of a Ruck – Mark Daniel

At the Bottom of a Ruck – Mark Daniel

Mark Daniel is a former rugby player whose playing days were cruelly cut short by injury.He has spoken or the first time about his struggles since retiring. He charts his rugby journey, lifetime of heart problems, comebacks and how just after being given a brand new lease of life it was abruptly ripped from his grasp.

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My earliest memory of rugby was playing for Bromsgrove RFC as a mini and my next club which was Chard RFC in Somerset, again as a mini on a Sunday.  My Saturdays back then were spent with my brother travelling the county with our father who refereed the game. We pretty much spent every single Saturday at a rugby club watching him referee and every Sunday getting up to play or train.

A rugby club felt like the most secure, honest, funniest, happiest, friendliest and at times, drunkest, place in the world! What was the catch? Who wouldn’t want to continue and grow into this rugby family?!

Me, apparently…

A large part of it was out of my hands (due to illness) and a slight curiosity to change shape of ball (Shh!).  I was, and still am, a huge Nottingham Forest fan.

I’d always enjoyed getting stuck in and enjoyed playing in goal on the odd occasion.  I found that I quite enjoyed it as it didn’t test me too much on the exercise front (slight clue) and I wasn’t as bad as I thought.

Anyway, I probably fell out of love with rugby for a few years and played football for about 5 years until I went to University in Chichester…

University of ChichesterThe very moment I signed up for the University College Chichester Men’s Rugby Club, no word of lie, my life changed forever.  There were no trials or anything like that, we were a club with two, maybe three teams but nobody was treated any differently to anybody else.  It didn’t matter whether you were the 1st team captain or the 3rd team water boy, you were part of the club and part of something very, very special.

I would look back now and say I probably ended up going to University to play rugby with a bit of studying thrown in for good measure, well that’s what it felt like anyway!

I could end up training 3 times a week and playing 2-3 times a week, upon occasion even twice on the Sunday! I didn’t care, I loved every second of it, and I was with my friends, my team-mates, my brothers.

There were numerous bus trips to play teams all over and of all standards but I didn’t care where and for whom I played.  I was given the honour of captaining the 2nd XV in my final year which is something that I look back on now with a huge sense of pride. This pride made us all feel ten-foot-tall walking around in our dodgy matching tracksuit.

Discipline, humility and impeccable manners were drilled into us and it was expected that we represented the club, our team and our friends to the utmost.  It was almost an unwritten and unspoken rule that you assumed the responsibility of carrying the clubs reputation with you and leaving your shirt in a better place than where you found it.

Now, role models come in many forms but somebody who had a profound effect on me was our coach who I was lucky enough to have most of my Uni career.  This man had an aura and a manner which demanded respect and admiration.

Ian Davies, or ‘Boyo’ due to his Welsh heritage, (I must state that I was never brave enough to address him as Boyo), was and is to this day the best coach I ever had or will have.  His coaching, his influence and his knowledge was unbelievable.  The boys would’ve done ANYTHING for that man. To my knowledge he went onto coach Worthing, Haywards Heath and then the Cornish Pirates in the championship and I’d bet he’d have done well at the very highest level, I’m sure the boys would agree.

Nearly 19 years after I first met him and when I meet up with old friends, we still talk about Boyo, some of the things we remember about him and the influence he had on us all, if anyone knows Hennie Muller…

Leaving University was quite emotional but only really for the normal and expected reasons.  I don’t recall suffering at the time, I just missed my mates and the University environment. I was straight into the working world with a job I’d actually secured through a sponsorship deal with the rugby club believe it or not, a sector I still work in to this day. Ultimately, that rugby club changed more in my life than I ever realised.

I floated for a few years mainly working and earning a disposable income, I wasn’t quite ready to ‘grow up’ as life was moving at a lightning pace so I never really had the time to stop and think or play rugby.  I didn’t miss it really as I was too busy running around the country but it was there in my mind and I picked up the odd game here or there, probably more to scratch an itch.

I eventually settled in Cheltenham and a work colleague asked me to come along and try a club called Smiths RFC.

Smiths Rugby Club

“We’re not the best team, but they’re a bloody good set of lads”

The latter part of the statement was all I needed to hear. 5 or 6 years later, 3 of those as 1st XV captain and I never regretted a moment of it.  I made friends for life during that time and had some amazing times, I also got to experience tour for the 1st, but not my last time!

It was through work that I met my wife and the first place I wanted to integrate her into was the rugby club.  She had never stepped foot into such a place before but at no point did I worry about what would happen. She, like I’m sure every other rugby wife, was welcomed with open arms and also made friends for life. She quickly realised what the place and the sport meant to me but more importantly, what the people meant to me and eventually, to us.

My job took me away from Cheltenham and ultimately Smiths down to Bristol.

Now I didn’t have a clue where, who or what rugby club I should go for. I asked friends and colleagues with all manner of suggestions.  I eventually tried one club in Bristol, mainly because it was 2 miles from my house and they played a pretty good standard.  Hindsight is an amazing thing!

Pre-season is a daunting prospect at the best of times, let alone when you’re the new boy (at 31!) but following that very first session which I enjoyed, I approached a coach and asked how I sign up and how I might need to transfer my club affiliation with the RFU? His response came with the reply of ‘oh, you won’t need to do that, you’re not good enough for our 1st team’

Naively, I saw this as a throwaway comment and persisted for the next 2 years whilst not really enjoying my rugby, probably with the attitude of ‘I’ve had a good run so maybe that’s it for me?!’  I should’ve walked away after that 1st session and never returned, I struggled to fit in and make friends, why? How? Me? I hadn’t struggled before?!

What made my mind up was after I had my 3rd round of Heart Surgery (oh, I’ve not told you about that yet…) and I went to watch a game on a rainy Saturday afternoon and see some of the lads I’d shared a pitch with for the previous 2 years.  I was pretty much ignored. I wasn’t welcome, I didn’t fit in.

That was that, all done, finished. Really? All this game has given me, to finish with sadness and regret can’t be right, can it?

I spoke to friends and family in great length about what to do next as I couldn’t leave the game like this and I felt I had a debt to repay.

Now, about that heart.  I was born with a congenital heart disease, a hole in my heart or Tetralogy of Fallot.  This was patched in 1982 and I spent the next 22 years growing up with this condition. I didn’t really know any different, I struggled, still do, with stamina and endurance. The right side of my heart must work harder to compensate for pulmonary valve narrowing and subsequent regurgitation. Oxygenated and deoxygenated blood mixes meaning that the much-needed oxygen rich blood doesn’t get to where it is needed which in turn causes muscle fatigue and shortness of breath.

In 2004 I had open heart surgery to replace the pulmonary valve as the right side of my heart was becoming enlarged. Although successful, the improvement in stamina was minimal but it didn’t stop me playing, it had always been this way so like I said, I knew no different. This 2nd surgery probably cost me about a year out of the game.

Then, in 2015, I had a further surgery to implant a melody valve within the pulmonary valve.  It is similar to a stent which aims to keep the valve from narrowing because that would restrict blood flow and ultimately put pressure on that right side. I didn’t really know what to expect going forward, although I did ask the surgeon if I could play rugby again just before I went under.

The surgery was a huge success. It felt like somebody had taken the handbrake off… 35 years and somebody finally let me loose! Although not fully released, I set about to see what I could do. I lost 2 ½ stone, found a new lease of life and wanted to play rugby again.

One of the success stories of my time at this club in Bristol was meeting a true gentleman of the game, who coincidentally turned out to be my neighbour.  He text me in the summer of 2015 and told me he’d had a similar negative experience at the club and was looking to move on.

We agreed to meet for pre-season over at a club called Nailsea & Backwell RFC, where Dave, my neighbour, had moved to.  I was back, I’d lost weight, I was fit, let’s finish this in style and together mate.

Nailsea and BackwellBeing the new boys (again) was no different. A bit nervous, and a bit unsure how you’d be welcomed. I needn’t have worried though.

What followed was the best 2 years of playing the game I could ever have dreamed of. Rugby hadn’t given up on me after all.

The coaches, the players and the club were fantastic to me as I was welcomed in and integrated within the week.  The rugby was tough, emotional and of a decent standard.  I somehow ended up playing 6 and at times at openside… Me? Openside?! Madness.

I loved every single moment of it and pictured myself at this club for years to come, unless I broke or age caught up with me.

The coaches were brilliant with one gentleman making a huge impression on me.  Jason Hobson (ex Bristol & England) was the forwards coach who I immediately took a shine to.  To continue to learn at 35/36 years old from an ex professional was an opportunity not to be missed and I hung on every word whilst giving everything I had on that Saturday for him,

Tony (head coach) and my teammates.

That season proved to be Jason’s last (probably due to politics) at Nailsea. Personally, I was devastated but also grateful that I got that year working with him, one of the most honest and friendly rugby men I’ve met to date.

When the end of season awards rolled around I wasn’t too keen to attend, I’d never won much in the past so why bother?

It turns out that being presented with not only the outstanding commitment award but also the Players Player award (the best one to get) had justified my decision to give it one last shot. I will always regret not doing a bit more homework and finding Nailsea 3 years before I did, but we’ve already spoken about hindsight.

It is a wet, windy, grey day in March 2017 and we are playing at home to Crewkerne in a league game.  They were rock bottom of the league and we were expected to beat them comfortably, which we did in the end but not by the margin we hoped.

Anyway, I digress.

About 10 minutes into the game a teammate picked up off the back of a ruck, drew the first man and passed to me on the left with an open field in front of me.  I ran as fast as my old legs would take me, (the local newspaper described it as a sprint to the line. I’ll take that!) but they had an absolute flyer of an openside who caught me inches from the line and bundled me into touch.  The game changed a touch after that and the fly-half started to run the show a bit for them. The next phase of defence I was stood opposite the 10 and saw him looking to go alone. I shot out of the line with the sole purpose of flattening him and putting him off his game.  I went in low and at waist height, not to hurt him but just to show a bit of force. BANG! I’d ended up hitting him directly on the hip bone with my full force on my right shoulder.

I remember feeling pain like never before. I felt for my shoulder which wasn’t where it should’ve been.  I moved it to try and ease the pain and it popped back into place.  Wow, I got away with that one, sure it’ll be fine. At the next scrum, I was playing in the 2nd row, as we went to push, the scrum twisted and my shoulder decided to do its disappearing act again.  I’ve been told I let out a scream, sat on the floor and looked like my worst fears had been confirmed.

That was me done for the game and I somehow managed to get changed, get home, pick my wife up from running an ultra-marathon (!) and meet friends for a birthday pint.

I, like every injury before thought I’d be fine, it’ll ease, and I’ll be fine for next week, nah, not this time.  A broken Glenohumeral joint coupled with a torn labrum and subscapularis had finished my season.  I wasn’t too worried at the time as I was probably glad of a rest, so I thought I will just target pre-season as a comeback in July.

In the meantime, I’d had an MRI and a few check-ups to see how it was healing with the doctors telling me it’ll probably be ok but not as strong as it was before.

‘You’re 36 mate, not thought about giving this up pal?’ enquired the doctor.

‘You don’t understand Sir…’ was my response.

Maybe it was at this point something popped into my mind that the end was becoming some sort of reality? A thought and situation I didn’t want to comprehend or even think about.

Pre-season of the 2017-18 was going well, I’d stepped back up to full contact and it felt good, I was probably going to be playing between the 1st and 2nd teams for the season as the younger, fitter, faster and bigger lads were breaking through which I was fine with.

I survived unscathed from 60 minutes of a pre-season summer fixture and thought I was going to be ok.

‘Fancy turning out for the VETS team Mungo?’

This fixture was ultimately the last time I put on a pair of boots to play rugby.

We ended up playing on one of the new 4G pitches which was a bit weird but new and a bit exciting.  Long story short, I reached and made a tackle to my right, fell funny and out it came.

Done, finished, end of, give it up pal!

When you know, you know.

I had had it all planned out. How it’s meant to finish, where it’s meant to finish and who I’ll be with. It was certainly not in Bishopston on a miserable Sunday!

Something inside me died that day.  I sat in the changing room and cried like I hadn’t done in a long long time.

I’d managed to compose myself by the time the game had finished and the boys returned. I ate my match tea (not sure I miss them!) and then headed home in silence.  The gents said they’d be in touch and they would see me next week and oh how I wished that to be true.

I spoke to the coaches and explained that this was probably it and they didn’t want to hear it from me but deep down I think they believed me.  The rugby club kept in touch and offered the help of the insurance I paid into in case I had to take time off work, something I appreciated but didn’t need.

They kept in contact but ultimately, I wasn’t a part of it anymore. just like that, in the blink of an eye, I wasn’t the ‘Rugby Player’ I had been for the last 30 odd years. It felt as though people looked at you differently.

Inevitably, I drifted away from the club and everything that went with it. The Whatsapp group had to go as I couldn’t handle seeing team selections without my name on it.  Anger, resentment, disappointment, jealousy all came into play not long after but the overriding emotion that plonked itself on my doorstep was anxiety.

Now, I’d always been a bit of a worrier and a bit cautious with things but not like this.  It was like the hole in my life left by rugby had to be filled and my mind decided to give me the gift of worry. Thanks!

The analogy I used to describe giving up rugby was like somebody has died in my life. It’s like my best friend, my comfort, my security, my enjoyment and my support had gone in a flash.

In October 2017 I’d had enough, I needed help.  I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) and referred for some support in the form of group therapy. Coping techniques and strategies work ok but it’s a tough old journey and mental health is a t**t. It’s like an unwelcome house guest that isn’t there all the time but when they do stay they won’t tell you when they might leave.  My mind works on a scale of 1 OR 100 and nothing in between. It’s either all good or as bad as you can imagine, the worst things you can ever imagine.

GAD DiagramLet me give you an example.

What if I went through a traffic light just as it turned to amber? A normal person wouldn’t even give a second thought.  Me? SHIT! I’m going to lose my licence, my job, my house, my family, my savings, I’m F***ED! What about that lady at the crossing? Did I hit her? SHIT! I might of… Best drive around the block to check… She’s not there, why isn’t she there, is she ok?! F*CK! Best check social media for any news or accidents in Bristol…F**K! Repeat this process at least 20 times in the next 72hrs for any news still convincing myself of the worst and how I might move on from it, when, not if it happens. REPEAT every single day in nearly every single situation!  This is a work in progress and some days are better than others. I’m training to become a personal trainer to broaden my horizons and satisfy a thirst for sport that I’ve lost sight of in recent times.

In the summer 2018 I decided to make contact with my old coach at Nailsea to offer my thanks for all his guidance and support and in turn offer my help to give something back to the game.

Of course, he jumped at the chance of the help and welcomed me back up to the club for preseason.  It was amazing to see the boys and it felt as though I hadn’t left. Unfortunately, it’s when I was on the outside looking in that I struggled.  It was too painful and too raw. I couldn’t handle not being one of the boys anymore.  I felt like a stranger amongst friends if that makes sense.  Maybe I took the easy way out and decided to tell Tony that I couldn’t continue as it was just too painful for me, I wasn’t ready.

As I write this now, I look back with amazing memories and although with a bit of ‘what if my heart was ok?’ ‘What if I didn’t make that tackle?’ ‘What if I found Nailsea sooner?’ I wouldn’t change a single thing about it all, nothing.  It’s a game I love and lived for 30 odd years and I dearly hope I can get back into it one day.

Anyone got a whistle?!

Only now, writing this, do I now know what’s wrong.

 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Great heart felt article (no pun intended). That day when you realise it’s the last time you cross the touch line is tough and it’s so much harder when it’s injury not choice.

  2. Brilliant article covering so many things that need to and should be talked about and made less ‘taboo’ subjects, things that are so often unspoken about and bottled away. Well done lads for talking about things that so many will relate to.

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