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'I had to learn to walk again. I was so nervous I wouldn't be able to hold myself up'

Connacht’s Eoghan Masterson is back playing after a severe knee injury that could have ended his career.

EOGHAN MASTERSON’S RECOLLECTION of the moment immediately after suffering a severe and rare knee injury that threatened to end his career tells us much of what we need to know about the man.

The Connacht back row was playing in a Pro12 clash against Zebre in February of last year and had scrambled back to the fringe of a ruck after a linebreak by the Italians.

Eoghan Masterson leaves the pitch with an injury Masterson is stretchered off in February of last year. Source: Francesca Soli/INPHO

Metres from the Connacht tryline, Italy international Kelly Haimona got his hands on the ball and surged at Masterson, dipping his head and driving straight through the 23-year-old’s knee to score.

“The first thing was that I was pretty disappointed he had scored the try,” says Masterson. “I thought after all of that effort to get back into position I would have stopped him scoring.”

Then came the flood of pain, the uncertainty about the nature of the injury, a stretcher off the pitch and an ambulance to the hospital in Parma.

Just over 12 months later, Masterson is now back playing and already has four games under his belt – one for Connacht Eagles, three for club side Galwegians and another to come today.

That Masterson would ever play again was in doubt in the aftermath of the incident that left him with a ruptured ACL, ruptured PCL, ruptured LCL, ruptured popliteus, grade-two tear of the MCL and deep damage to the meniscus in his left knee.

Having initially thought he was facing six months out with an ACL tear, Masterson was rocked by further scans after returning to Ireland.

“My first thing to think was, ‘Jesus, that’s a lot to have going on at the same time.’ John O’Donnell, our doctor, gave me the results and I was starting to panic, thinking that it didn’t sound great.

“Garrett Coughlan, our physio, rang me and said we were going up to see Ray Moran, the surgeon, and that he’d tell me which way to go – one way or the other.

“I stopped because it sounded really weird what he was saying. ‘One way or the other? What do you mean by that?’

“Garrett said it was his job to prepare me that Ray could tell me the worst news imaginable. I wasn’t able to speak on the phone anymore after that. It’s really, really nightmare stuff.

Sonatane Takulua and Eoghan Masterson Masterson had been in outstanding form last season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Those days before going up to Ray wasn’t the easiest time. You’re waiting to hear if your career is going to be over. I’ll never forget those days, just waiting.”

Knee specialist Moran, who works out of the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry, confirmed that Masterson had suffered exceptional damage to the knee, so the Connacht man asked him straight out whether he would play rugby again.

“He said he’d be cautiously optimistic. I just said, ‘That’s good enough for me. I’ll take it and run with it.’”

Of course, it would be some time before Masterson would run, or even walk, again. The first operation came that weekend, although a complication with a cut on the outside of his leg meant the ACL couldn’t be remedied on that occasion.

Moran fixed the LCL, pinned down the meniscus and fitted Masterson for a PCL brace, which sits around the outside of the knee and pushes the tibia bone forward, forcing the PCL into a position where it can stitch itself back together.

The brace meant Masterson couldn’t walk or drive for 13 weeks. Despite the limitations, he was happy to have a chance to fight his way back to fitness.

“Garrett told me it was an unbelievably rare injury and that lads had had to retire with less,” says Masterson. “That scared the crap out of me.

“It became a real challenge that I wanted to overcome and I was really proud of having suffered it and having made the progress I was making.

“I was determined to be one of those guys that suffered such an unusual injury and was able to come back from it.”

The same week that Masterson’s Connacht team-mates were preparing for the Pro12 final against Leinster, he went under the knife to have his ACL put back together and then watched from the sidelines in Murrayfield on the Saturday.

While Connacht had been enjoying the greatest months of their history, Masterson had been working through days that centred around five bouts of wiggling his toes for 20 minutes at a time.

Dave McSharry, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Eoghan Masterson, Darragh Leader and John Cooney Masterson and some of the other injured players after last season's Pro12 win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was great for the lads to win, but I was missing out on all these big games: beating Leinster at home, the two Glasgow games, the final. I was happy with my progress, but to sit in the stand at the Pro12 final, it’s not easy. I had to accept it and I became unbelievably motivated to get back and contribute.”

That spurt of motivation was timely, as Masterson looked towards June without the prospect of time off. Rather than jetting to Dubai or the US with his mates, he was learning how to do something all of us take for granted.

“I had to learn to walk again. My leg was unbelievably wasted away, my calf and quad had completely vanished. But it was mainly because I hadn’t put my foot down in so long, my gait and the mechanics of walking – I had to learn it all again.

“I remember putting my foot down on the ground for the first time and I was genuinely so nervous that I wouldn’t be able to hold myself up.

“We did it and we learned to walk, then we learned to walk sideways, then we learned to jog a little bit on the anti-gravity machine, then learned to jog on the grass. It was a great journey.”

Masterson flatly rejects the idea that he showed any great mental strength to come through those difficult moments, instead underlining that he had no choice.

He didn’t jog on the anti-gravity treadmill until the end of August of last year, although the time away from playing did mean he finished his Arts degree in NUI Galway, graduating in October after specialising in economics and geography.

With Masterson’s knee coming through each step up positively, he began to work hard with Connacht’s strength and conditioning coach Tristan Sharp in the province’s ‘return-to-perform’ programme, building his fitness and strength back up.

Now, what was “a dream a long way in the distance” has come to happen, with Masterson coming through the first four games of his comeback unscathed and with his confidence boosted.

The recovery demonstrates the sheer determination he possesses, but then it shouldn’t be a surprise to us, given how hard Masterson worked to be a professional rugby player in the first place.

Eoghan Masterson and physio Dave Hanly Masterson's road to recovery was a long one. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A student of the non-rugby-playing St Mary’s CBS in Portlaoise, Masterson joined Portlaoise RFC at the age of five, while also playing GAA with the Park/Ratheniska club.

His diligent attitude led to North Midlands representative honours as he rose through the grades, before he played for the Leinster provincial side and then captained Ireland U18 Clubs in 2011 – playing alongside future Connacht team-mates Ultan Dillane and Sean O’Brien.

Having joined Clontarf and the Leinster sub-academy after school, a dislocated shoulder meant Masterson missed out on Ireland U19s honours, and he then found himself on the periphery for the Ireland U20s – dropped on the eve of the 2013 Six Nations.

“At the time, that was the worst moment in my career,” says Masterson. “I didn’t realise I was going to have a bigger one to come. I got cut, but then got back into the squad for the Scotland game, a minute off the bench, then I was gone again.”

Masterson’s father was born in Scotland to Irish parents – Achill and Donegal natives – before moving back to Ireland as a 17-year-old and meeting his future wife in Westport, her hometown.

The Scottish link had led to the SRU enquiring as to Masterson’s interest in playing for them. The back row didn’t rule it out after the initial contact and when it became clear that Ireland were favouring others, and with the 2013 Junior World Championship looming, Masterson warmed to the idea.

“I thought that if I wasn’t getting contracted anywhere in Ireland, what’s the point in waiting on an injury in their squad.

“I could go to Scotland, who said they wanted me to come over, and the Junior World Championship is a great window to showcase yourself. I knew I couldn’t take a chance by sitting around.”

Masterson played a trial match for the Scotland U20s, performed well, but was then dealt another blow when the coaching staff told him they couldn’t select him ahead of players who had been in the mix for longer. He was put on a standby list and then asked to play in one of the Scots’ pre-tournament warm-up games.

“It just happened to be against Ireland in Ashbourne. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, this is a very, very awkward time,’” recalls Masterson.

Eoghan Masterson The number eight has always had huge determination to succeed. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I wasn’t with Scotland and I wasn’t with Ireland but I was playing for Scotland against Ireland, with lads I had thought I should have been ahead of on both sides! I just said I didn’t care anymore and I would give it everything I could.”

An injury followed in the Scotland squad ahead of the JWC, and Masterson was finally called in, going on to play in all five games – a valuable experience.

“The main reason I did it was to showcase what I could do as a young player. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing, but it’s funny the way it worked out.”

While his international career was stuttering, Masterson was without academy contract offers in Ireland and staring at a future outside rugby.

But he wanted this career more than anything and was willing to ask for it. Having worked with Jimmy Duffy with the Ireland U18s, he rang up the then-Connacht academy officer and was encouraged to contact Nigel Carolan – another who he had worked with in underage Connacht camps.

Carolan told Masterson that the academy was close to full, but the Portlaoise man offered to train for free during the summer. The province provided accommodation, Masterson threw himself into the opportunity and never looked back.

“Maybe it was cheeky but it paid off and I’m in eternal debt to Nigel.”

Masterson signed an academy contract in October 2013, played for the Eagles in November and earned his full senior debut a week later against the Scarlets in the Pro12.

He went on to play 11 times in the 2014/15 campaign and was then outstanding at number eight last season, starting 13 games in the number eight shirt, before the knee injury cut him down.

Masterson – whose younger brother Sean, also a back row, is in Connacht’s sub-academy and the extended Ireland U20 squad with another year to go at that level – recognises the need to be patient now that he is fit again, but is targeting regaining a place in the Connacht team as soon as is possible.

His contract – negotiated by his agent Niall Woods of Navy Blue – keeps him at the province until the summer of 2018, so he has time to build back to where he was before injury.

Eoghan Masterson Masterson is back playing and training with Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The focus is short-term but for Masterson the wider goal in his career remains the same as it has always been – the green shirt of Ireland.

“I’d love it more than anything in the world, but you look at the competition they have for Six Nations places and it’s absolutely crazy, even throughout the provinces and here in Connacht.

“Coming back from a 12-month injury, I feel like I’m starting at the bottom of the ladder again and I have to climb back up there. It’s the biggest goal I have and I’d love to fulfil it. I dream about it, but I’ve got to keep working towards it.

“It’s out in the distance there, but hopefully some day.”

- This article was updated at 10.35 to correct an error stating that Masterson had been playing club rugby with his previous team, Corinthians, in recent weeks. He has been playing with Galwegians.

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