It must be said that Rob Horne is a remarkable young man.
The Australian rugby player had his career cut short and life dramatically changed forever last April when he made the very first tackle of Northampton Saints’ East Midlands derby against Leicester Tigers. Horne attempted to fell giant No 8 Sione Kalamafoni from kick-off, but just 12 seconds of the match had passed when he collapsed on the turf and was unable to move.
Horne had damaged his brachial plexus so badly that all five nerves separated from his spinal cord, leaving him without any feeling in his right arm and, for a period of time, even worse.
“When the injury happened I was fully conscious the whole time,” Horne says at Twickenham, where this Saturday Northampton will take on Leicester once again in their Premiership clash that will be held in his honour with the aim of raising funds for him and his family to assist with his treatment.
“I suppose I was just trying to get up. I haven't looked at the footage – I can't put myself through it – but I've been told it looks like I'm trying to get up and I just can't.
“Like any player you don't think anything's that wrong. Initially when I couldn't move my right foot it was an issue, obviously, but I kicked and kicked and got that moving. Once that was moving I just thought I'd dislocated my right shoulder. That's what I said to the medics: 'I think I'm all good, I just think my shoulder's dislocated.'
“It was probably the body language and demeanour of some of the doctors [that started to sow some doubt]. I was lying there thinking: 'Why are they approaching me like this?' That was probably the moment when I thought possibly something more serious has happened.”
What makes Horne so remarkable is how he has dealt with the biggest of setbacks so positively. He is only 29 years old, but is thankful to have had such a long career in which he managed to win 34 international caps, both the Super Rugby and Rugby Championship titles and play in two Rugby World Cups. This optimism shines through when dealing with his paralysis, too. Rather than allow himself to get down about his condition, Horne is determined to see what he can do by pushing his body in ways he previously didn’t even though he was a professional athlete. As you can imagine for someone who is right-handed - though Horne does actually write with his left hand - losing all movement makes everyday life quite challenging.
“It has changed dramatically,” he says. “To live with paralysis is something that is very new. I'm still learning ways to do things. It's funny how the body is. If one thing is taken away from you you become pretty innovative and you work out ways to achieve things. You surprise yourself all the time about what other ways simple acts can be done.
Northampton vs Leicester will help raise funds for injured former player Horne (Getty)
“With most nerve injuries there’s a constant chronic pain but, saying that, you find ways to deal with that in the sense that my capacity to deal with the pain has grown hugely since the day of the injury to where I am today. Your brain’s a pretty amazing thing. I suppose that’s what the life changing nature of it is: you do confront things and you’re forced to operate in different ways and I’ve been amazed with the ways the brain can divert and can function in different ways.”
The news of Horne’s retirement brought an outpouring of support, not just in Northampton but from the wider rugby community as a whole. A number of fund-raising efforts have been launched to help assist Horne that includes auction items such as dinner with Dylan Hartley and James Haskell, a coaching session with Saints and, rather remarkably, Ben Franks’ 2011 Rugby World Cup final All Blacks shirt.
Horne initially thought he had disclocated his shoulder before realising how serious the injury was (Getty)
But unsurprisingly the highs do also come with lows, such as when Horne was first told about how his life had been changed by his injury.
“I suppose at risk of making this a bit of a sob story - which is not what I want to do at all - there was definitely a hard moment when I came out of the initial surgery which was an exploration surgery which found that it was completely gone. I’d detached all five nerves from my spinal cord. That was that.
“Saying that though, that was the hardest moment but from hearing the worst news from the get go I’ve had time… there hasn’t been any false hope like ‘jeez this could get better’ or this or that. From day one, I’ve known the outcome so having heard that initial end resolve I’ve had time to deal and to cope and to come real understanding of what I’ve been confronted with.”
Horne was forced to retire after losing the use of his right arm (Getty)
He has also found solace in speaking to other victims of brachial plexus injuries, both from within sport and outside of it.
“It’s not uncommon,” he says. “It’s a high impact injury – a lot of surgeons find people [with it] who come off motorbikes. I’ve met an ex-serviceman who was shot through his brachial plexus, a young lady who was skiing and went off a cliff and did a similar injury. It can happen in various ways.
“There’s been two rugby league players in Australia who suffered this injury before. A few people have been in contact with me who have suffered this playing rugby in England too.
“It’s living with a paralysis and promoting the fact that you still find ways – it’s not a barrier. Early on you are coping with different things - I’ve got a lot of muscle wastage. Through not playing rugby I’ve lost a lot of weight. Living with paralysis, there are perceptions around that. I find it is how I approach that and it’s how I represent myself that is the best way to go about it.”
And so to Saturday. It is no coincidence that Northampton’s opponents this weekend will be the same side that they faced on that fateful day on 14 April this year. The Tigers hold a fierce rivalry with Saints, but they were also keen to be part of the process in helping to honour Horne’s career. When Horne walks out onto the Twickenham pitch before kick-off to deliver the match ball, that rivalry will be put to one side and the around 40,000 fans will pay tribute to one of the good guys of the game: Saint, Tiger or rugby fan, it will be an emotional moment for all of those in attendance.
Saturday's match will help raise funds for Horne and his family (Andy Taylor)
“The tragedy of what happened to Rob in our game last year really rocked the rugby world so for the game to come together like it is going to in this fixture at Twickenham and in the derby between Saints and Leicester is going to be huge,” said Leicester’s England fly-half George Ford.
“It’s the least we can do for someone like Rob, who has had an unfortunate injury.
“The rivalry is huge between the two teams and I don’t think that will ever change, but sometimes things happen and there are things in life that are bigger than a rugby game, and this is an event that is.”
The injury may have changed Horne’s life but he is determined not to let it change him, something he puts down to some good old fashioned Australian stubbornness. But while he admits it will be a “bitter-sweet” moment, you can be sure that Horne will take the positives out of a day that will see rugby pay tribute to one of its own. It’s the least he deserves.
Tickets for ‘The Derby’ at Twickenham Stadium in aid of Rob Horne are on sale at www.northamptonsaints.co.uk/buytickets.