By Will Davies
Horne was made Northampton captain shortly before an injury ended his career. (Reuters/Action Images: Adam Holt)
This weekend a passionate English rugby rivalry will play second fiddle to the sport’s community coming together to celebrate a former Australian rugby stalwart.
One whose career was ended prematurely when an on-field collision left him with a paralysed right arm.
Ex-Wallabies and NSW Waratahs centre Rob Horne, a much-loved figure both at home and in the UK, was famous for his determined and robust physicality on the pitch.
His life after rugby now presents a challenge far greater than sport provides. And yet he is approaching it with a resilience and positivity his peers easily recognise from his playing days.
Rob Horne scores for the Wallabies against the Barbarians at Twickenham in 2014. (Reuters/Action Images: Paul Harding)
Making his captaincy debut for English club Northampton against local rivals Leicester in April, the 29-year-old sustained the life-changing injury moments after kick-off.
“I suffered a brachial plexus avulsion, meaning I detached the five nerves from my spinal cord, which control my shoulder, arm and hand,” Horne explained earlier this year.
“As a result of that I’ve got full paralysis of my right arm and [am] currently with chronic pain.”
When team medical staff attended to him on the pitch, he initially told them he was fine. He was even a bit embarrassed they were fussing over him.
“I said: ‘No, I need to get up. My family are here. I don’t want to show that I’m hurt’,” the 34-time capped Wallaby said.
“Then Matt Lee, who was securing my head and neck, said: ‘Rob you haven’t moved your legs yet’. And that’s when I went: ‘Oh, I haven’t … I haven’t.’
“And then I was just kicking and kicking and kicking, and then I got my right leg moving and then from there I sort of went: ‘OK, maybe I should listen to the medicos. Probably for the first time in my career’.”
On Saturday, the same two teams are celebrating Horne with a testimonial match at Twickenham in London.
Matches between the two sides are typically marked with rancour and animosity. But the decision to move the game to the home of rugby, to make a special event of it and fit more people through the gates, was an easy one for all concerned, such is the regard with which Horne is held.
Rob Horne played over 100 times for the Waratahs in Super Rugby before joining Northampton. (AAP Image: Dean Lewins)
It is a full competition match, with Premiership points at stake, not a charity game. Though it will also act as an opportunity to raise money to help Horne and his young family.
And for fans of both clubs, as well as rugby in general, it will be a chance to show their appreciation for Horne and his decorated career.
A ‘humbling’ experience
Ahead of the fixture, the usually quiet and reserved Horne has stepped out of a different comfort zone and in to the glare of the world’s media.
“Something like this is extremely humbling and pretty unfathomable for me,” he said.
“I started playing rugby in Southern Sydney. I played union on Saturday, league on Sunday.
“Now for my name to be associated with one of the biggest games in English rugby is pretty overwhelming.”
The rugby community in Australia has also been keen to support Horne. He toured with the Classic Wallabies as team manager in Fiji in September.
The program has been created to help former players with the physical and mental transition in retirement, and Stephen Hoiles, the general manager of the Classic Wallabies, commended the support for Horne.
“I think it’s fantastic how England do it,” Hoiles said.
“It’s really hard to see someone who you’re really good friends with, and who is essentially a very good person, go through trauma, and that’s what it was.
“While his situation is really unique, he was unreal in Fiji. Seeing the improvement in him over the last six to eight weeks since he’s been back [in Australia] has been really inspiring.
“He’s obviously living with a huge amount of pain but he’s trying to learn to live with that pain. He’s not trying to ignore the pain, he’s not trying to beat it, he’s basically trying to live and accept it.”
An uncertain future
Horne says it is too soon after the injury to know what the future might hold, but he is determined to make the most of what comes next.
“[I’m] working through what I have to but I’m certainly going to embrace what’s ahead and new challenges and new opportunities, and things that I suppose would never come into my thinking prior to this,” he said ahead of Saturday’s match.
“I suppose that’s what a life-changing event does; it resets the way you view things.
“So having some incredibly inspiring people that do things that are just remarkable, it’s certainly helped put things in perspective.”