Thursday 14 November 2019

'You play a sport you love, but in a moment your life can change'

Jamie Heaslip outside the Aviva Stadium
Jamie Heaslip outside the Aviva Stadium
David Wallace is tackled while playing against England
Munster full-back Felix Jones sustained a serious neck injury in 2009 Photo: Brendan Moran
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

A 'belt in the back' during the 2015 Six Nations match against France left rugby star Jamie Heaslip with three fractured vertebrae and a new-found sense of perspective.

Suddenly, he realised how quickly life can change - even for an elite sportsman.

The Number Eight is one of several rugby legends taking part in TV3's 'Rugby's Wheelchair Challenge', an emotive documentary which sees athletes travel from Dublin's Aviva Stadium to Limerick's Thomond Park while confined to a wheelchair.

The programme hopes to raise awareness about disability access.

"We were playing France (when) I got a bit of a belt in the back," Heaslip explained. "It later transpired that I had fractured three of my vertebrae.

"We play a fairly physical sport and we are all well aware that accidents can happen but that really brought it home to me. People are playing a sport they love, and in moments their life can change."

Felix Jones, Shane Byrne and David Wallace will also feature in the documentary, which airs tomorrow at 10.30pm.

In 2009, Jones sustained a serious neck injury during a match against Connacht. The Munster player is conscious of how close it came to ending his professional career.

"I was tremendously lucky there was no damage to my neck cord and I returned to play in just over a year," he said. "I know I'm going to sit in this chair and I'll be out of it after a couple of hours and I'll be back training in the morning.

"But when I sit in it, I'll be thinking this could have been my chair."

The players will experience first-hand the "everyday experiences, frustrations and challenges of being physically disabled in Ireland".

The programme is the brainchild of accessibility advocate Stephen Cluskey, who has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 18 after he was involved in a farm accident.

"Rugby players are considered gods among men," Mr Cluskey said.

"They're much stronger, much fitter than most people in society. To see them struggling with tasks that a regular wheelchair user has to face each day is a powerful message."

Mr Cluskey hopes the documentary will draw attention to IRUPA's Injured Rugby Player's Fund.

Irish Independent

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