'I was just so blessed I was able to walk again' - The top Irish fullback who broke his neck on a Lions tour
“I knew I was in trouble immediately. It was the pain. It was excruciating.”
When fullback Rodney O’Donnell met his father at the airport after the Lions tour of South Africa in 1980, it should have been a joyous homecoming.
A year earlier the St Mary’s College star hadn’t yet played a single minute for his province or country, but a spectacular rise had seen the 23-year-old kick down the Lions selection door and force his way past the best players in the northern hemisphere and into the test team.
But when he greeted his dad at London Heathrow after arriving home, there was no happiness or talk of the upcoming season, or hushed discussions about what O’Donnell could potentially achieve in the game after a breakout 12 months.
There were just four words spoken, halved by a pause, with a question mark tagged on at the end. Nothing else needed to be said, and the crushing moment still resonates with O’Donnell almost 37 years later.
"My dad just looked at me and said ‘that’s it, isn’t it?’. It was all he ever said. It was emotional," O’Donnell says.
The ‘that’ was O’Donnell’s neck and his rugby career – the former was damaged, the latter damaged beyond repair.
A week earlier he lay in a hospital bed in Johannesburg 14,000km from home, the scale of his injury obvious by the sheer size of the contraption holding his head in place.
If he had broken his neck on this summer’s Lions tour, rather than on the 1980 expedition, perhaps his career could have been saved – or at the very least he may have been fitted with a more low-key neck brace that didn’t scream ‘my playing days are over’.
The day before he was wearing Lions red against the Junior Springboks when future star Danie Gerber burst down the Highveld towards him, using each stride along the hard ground to hurtle his hulking frame towards O’Donnell at increasing speed.
O’Donnell’s team-mates always described him as brave. Whether it was on the front pitch at St Mary’s, the back pitch at Donnybrook or the hallowed turf of Lansdowne Road, they knew he would always indiscriminately throw his body in front of whatever runaway train was bearing down on his try-line – and unfortunately this occasion was no exception.
"I remember it well," he says of the moment that almost left him paralysed.
Gerber broke through and I was the last line of defence. He ran straight at me. We went into contact and it felt like a really bad stinger. My head went into my chest. My shoulders clicked together.
"I thought it was a broken shoulder. It wasn’t, as it turned out."
O’Donnell’s neck was broken, his fledgling rugby career ended at 23. It had taken just a year for him to vault from club rugby to the international stage to a Lions tour, and just one moment for it to be taken away – a fact that was hard to escape whenever the door to his hospital room slammed shut.
There was nobody from a players’ union on hand to talk O’Donnell through his options, to organise to bring his family out to see him, or even to help him come to terms with his loss. Instead, he relied on the support of friends and family, whose long distance phone calls proved far more valuable in his recovery than they will ever know.
"Once I got into hospital and the x-rays showed the extent of the injuries, and that we needed to operate, that was a low spot," he says.
"The team are hundreds of miles away so that is the hard bit. You are on your own.
"But the Irish community out there, there were a couple of lads from Belvedere that were there and they came in to visit me. The minute the door closed, you were down. The minute the door opened, you were up.
"When I was in hospital and I was down, the phone rang at 4am. It was JB Sweeney, Lorcan Gogan and a few others [from St Mary’s RFC] in a nightclub on Leeson Street and they decided to ring me. Can you imagine that? For the rest of the week, I just floated. Those little phone calls give you a huge lift."
For O’Donnell’s team-mates, his career-ending injury was something they always feared – although most of them envisioned the courageous fullback leaving the arena on his shield after claiming yet another seemingly uncatchable high ball in an era where airborne players were treated with the disdain King Kong showed pilots swarming around the Empire State Building.
An all-round talent with all the skills required for fullback, O’Donnell was marked for greatness coming out of St Mary’s College in Rathmines. His solidity under a high ball was honed fielding Garryowens from his uncle, with a young O’Donnell required to stand at the back of his house in Churchtown and claim up and unders launched from the front garden.
Speaking in the staff room of his old school, where he is now games administrator, O’Donnell played down his ability, but St Mary’s team-mate and fellow 1980 Lion Tony Ward was happy to remind people of what his friend could do on the pitch – and what Irish rugby missed out on with his injury.
"I mean this in the nicest possible way – Rodney was a freak of a player in school," Ward says.
"His greatest strength by far was that he was just incredible under the high ball. If you talk to any player from our era, they will all say that there was nobody braver. He was fearless.
It [the injury] was tragic. Rodney would have been the Ireland fullback for quite a number of years to come. Rodney was potentially superb. You often see great young players whose potential never comes through. With Rodney it was beginning to and would have."
High praise from Ward but O’Donnell’s progression in rugby indicates a prodigious talent. He won two Leinster Leagues with St Mary’s RFC and collected his first Ireland cap before he had even pulled on a Leinster jersey – something that Brian O’Driscoll would later repeat – as a part of the historic 2-0 test series win against Australia in 1979.
It was a particularly special achievement for O’Donnell as he formed part of an all-St Mary’s back three, with Johnny Moloney and Terry Kennedy on the wings – and he looks back on the double down under as a career highlight.
O’Donnell was subsequently left out of the Five Nations opener in 1980 before starring in the final three games and getting the nod for the subsequent Lions trip to South Africa. He loved life on tour and mixing with top players from Britain and Ireland – as well as finding some kindred spirits when it came to nocturnal protocol.
"There would have been a few of us who would have been a little bit mad," he laughs.
"Ray Gravell, myself and John O’Driscoll and a few others. You could get out for a few drinks. We had some good times… which couldn’t be put in print!"
He enjoyed the tour off the field and acquitted himself brilliantly between the white lines too, getting the nod for the first test against the Springboks.
The Lions played well and despite Ward scoring a record 18 points, they were defeated 26-22. O’Donnell did okay but was dropped for the second test, which precipitated the end of his career just 18 days after his crowning achievement, leaving him with just six international caps in total.
When he returned to Dublin, he quickly discovered that he needed an even more unwieldy neck brace – his South African version had too much leeway in it, which could have inadvertently finished the job that was started on the rugby plains of Johannesburg.
"A clap on the back and I would have been paralysed," he says.
"I parked my car in Vincent’s Hospital, still in the big brace, and handed the doctor a huge pile of x-rays [from South Africa]. He told me to go down and get new x-rays. That was when we discovered that I needed a fusion on the front [of the neck]. That was another ten weeks on my back. Terrible."
A few years ago, unbeknownst to O’Donnell, he stood back-to-back with Danie Gerber in a bar in Port Elizabeth, which could have sent him into a pit of despair as he remembered the career that he was denied.
In 1982, two years after O’Donnell retired, Ireland won the Triple Crown and the Five Nations, repeating the feat three years later. O’Donnell would have been in his prime then, but instead watched from the stand at Lansdowne Road, where you would have forgiven him for being more than a bit sour with how things turned out.
However, O’Donnell points out that playing the ‘what if’ game can work both ways – if he tackled Gerber an inch higher, he could have worn the green jersey for a decade, but if he had smashed him an inch lower, he could have greeted his father in a wheelchair at Heathrow.
A few years ago in an interview O’Donnell said that the injury that ended his rugby career was the worst thing that ever happened to him. Now, he is keen to extract pluses from a very negative life-altering event.
"You prefer to look at the positives so we will take that comment back and say how lucky I was to play and then how lucky I was to not be paralysed," he says.
"So what it is the number one thing there? How lucky I was to survive. I was just so blessed that I was able to walk again.
"Okay, I wasn’t there [for the Triple Crowns] but I was lucky that I was able to walk into the ground and that I wasn’t in a wheelchair.
Probably I put too much emphasis on my rugby career. That was my life. It wasn’t easy [to retire]. Sometimes you would be sitting down having a pint with the lads and think ‘f*** it, I’d love to be playing again’ but then you also think, ‘I’m glad I am still walking’.
"You have to park it, because if I didn’t park it, it would eat you up. You just wouldn’t be able to cope."
The way he coped was through the game itself, spending the subsequent years coaching and organising matches, staying involved with St Mary’s - both the school and the rugby club.
June 18th 1980 was the last time he played a game of rugby though. His obsession, his life style, his passion – it was cruelly snatched away in an instant just as he had established himself.
But even as we near the 37th anniversary of O’Donnell’s awful injury, a lifetime in rugby has kept him connected to the game, and all it takes is for him to slip into the recesses of his memory to be transported back to when he was a young man in his sporting prime.
"That never leaves you," he says of the feeling of playing.
"To get a catch that nobody thought you could catch. To get a try. To spiral kick the ball.
"I was always rugby and I always will be rugby. That is the way it is. I can’t deny that or do anything about it."
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