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'I felt it straight away, the popping and cracking': Gaffney retired at 23 after horrible back and neck injury

The former Ireland U20 star is relieved to avoid being paralysed, but admits it was ‘gut-wrenching’ to give up on his professional rugby dream.

Updated Sep 28th 2018, 8:35 AM

FORMER IRELAND U20 Ciaran Gaffney has been forced to retire from rugby because of a back and neck injury which almost left him paralysed.

He is devastated that his dream of being a professional rugby player is over at 23 years of age, but tempers his disappointment knowing that he is fortunate not to have a permanent serious disability.

The injury which ended his career came seven minutes into a game against, of all teams, the Connacht side he grew up supporting and whose academy he had come through.

Ciaran Gaffney receives medical attention Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

That match for Zebre in the Sportsground in February had been viewed by Gaffney as an opportunity to show what he was capable of, and maybe a chance to step towards coming back to play for the side he cherished.

Instead, he ruptured a disc in his back, dislocated his neck, spent three days and nights immobile in a brace in hospital before undergoing an operation which required the surgeon to cut through the front of his neck to access the problem.

And throughout it all, the six-hour operation, the six days in hospital, the six weeks in a neck brace, rehabbing in Galway, Parma and Bordeaux, Gaffney clung to the dream that he would be able to go back playing rugby.

Rugby has been part and parcel of his life since his father John, who headed up the youths section at Galwegians RFC, dragged him along to the Saturday morning sessions in Crowley Park when he was two, throwing him into action with the mini-rugby players when he was four and from there all he wanted to be when he grew up was to be a professional rugby player.

“It was one of those things when I was growing up. If it was my birthday and, in front of the cake, somebody said make a wish that was always my wish, ‘I want to become a professional rugby player’. It was all I ever dreamed of,” says Gaffney

The pathway soon opened up. He came up through the ranks in Galwegians, he was running the sideline for Connacht at the Sportsground as a ballboy by the time he was eight, secondary school at ‘The Bish’ in Galway and Cistercian College in Roscrea enhanced a growing reputation, Irish representation followed and as he was going through the Connacht academy he chalked up 10 appearances for the Ireland U20 side.

Ciaran Gaffney Gaffney prepares to kick at goal for Roscrea. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

He made a couple of appearances for the Connacht senior side off the bench in 2016-17 but a hamstring issue hampered progress and, after chatting to academy manager Nigel Carolan, he headed to New Zealand for a stint and linked up with former Galwegians coach Corey Browne at Otago.

It was a move that worked. Former Connacht coach Michael Bradley needed a back three player in Zebre, Gaffney headed to Parma and thrived. By the time he came back to his native Galway last February he had chalked up 17 competitive appearances for Zebre and the Italians had put a two-year deal on the table.

“It was in the back of my mind all along that if the move to Zebre worked out well then I might get back to play for Connacht further down the line so I earmarked that game in February from the minute the fixtures came out.

“I was never as nervous before a match. I really wanted to do well, I really wanted to win (it turned to be Zebre’s first ever win in Ireland).

“I remember the first ball that came to me, it was a sliced Garryowen from Darragh Leader but it ended up bouncing off my chest. I was nervous and full of excitement. Then the second ball kicked to me was a long clearance kick from Craig Ronaldson into the right corner.

Ciaran Gaffney Gaffney impressed in his stint in Italy. Source: Richard Huggard/INPHO

“I collected it, looked up saw three men in front to me, Matt Healy, Finlay Bealham and Sean O’Brien. I put a bit of footwork on, but whatever way Finlay and Sean collided into me or tackled me, my head got shunted into my chest.

“I felt it straight away, the popping and cracking sound. I wasn’t knocked out or anything, I can remember everything. I kind of knew straight away I was in serious trouble. I knew it was bad, but obviously at the time I didn’t know it was going to be career-ending.

“The disc in between my C5 and C6 vertebrae was completely ruptured and my neck was dislocated as well. The way the doctor described it to me is that the disc is like a jelly sweet. If you squeeze the jelly sweet hard enough, a kind of gunk pops out. It’s like that when your disc is compressed.

The danger is that that gunk which is squeezed out severs the spinal cord and that’s when you get paralysis. My disc hit the spinal cord but didn’t sever it. There was a little bit of damage done to it but nothing major thankfully.”

Gaffney is indebted to the Connacht medical team, particularly physios Garett Coughlan and Orla Armstrong, who took charge of the situation. Zebre had a doctor and physio pitchside, but Connacht had a full medical team on duty and there was also a language barrier to be considered in those crucial moments.

“I shouted to the Zebre doctor ‘basta, basta’, which sort of means stop. I knew I was in trouble and was trying to that out. Garrett took charge. I only became aware of it afterwards that 50% of spinal cord injuries occur after the initial impact, when the whole moving and treating the patient happen.

“The pain was agony. The first hour was the worst part. I was told I couldn’t move anything. I’m quite claustrophobic at the best of times so you can imagine being strapped into the structure, being taken into these rooms, all you can see is the ceiling, and then there was the fear.”

He was rushed to University Hospital Galway, was pumped full of pain-killers which seemed to have minimal impact, was cut out of his Zebre jersey and three days of scans and tests followed before a course of action was decided upon.

The risk of surgery was made apparent, various forms needed to be signed, and three sleepless days and nights passed before surgery was undertaken through the front of the neck by orthopaedic surgeon Fergus Byrne.

“They cut you open at the front of the neck. The surgeon went in through there and took out the ruptured piece of the disc and all the shards, and cleaned it all up.

“Then he put in an artificial disc and then put a bolt through up through the vertebrae so that the C5, the artificial disc and the C6 are all bolted together. Then there is a cage put around all three of them and that’s what the fusion operation involved. It takes about six months for it to calcify.

Ciaran Gaffney celebrates his try Gaffney, right, celebrates scoring an Ireland U20 try with Calvin Nash, Garry Ringrose and Cian Kelleher. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We had to sign all of these forms beforehand because there are so many risks attached to the operation, the worst case being permanent damage or paralysis but then again there was no avoiding the operation. It had to be done.”

His parents John and Felicity took turns staying with him day and night in hospital, three more days of being strapped and immobile followed. Support came from brother Rory (19), who plays for Galwegians and was also in the Connacht academy, sisters Orla (21), who is in Performing Arts College in London, and Clodagh (17), an accomplished hockey player, while the upside to the injury happening in Galway was that there were plenty of friends on hand in the subsequent days and weeks.

“The doctors came to me post-surgery and said they were happy with how it had gone but didn’t know what it would mean for my rugby career The neck brace came off after six weeks. I was really hopeful I would get back playing. I rehabbed in Galway, then returned to Parma and worked hard on it there and spent three weeks in Bordeaux working with a specialist whose father was the first one to operate on this type of injury through the front of the neck.

Zebre were really good to me. They kept the two-year deal on the table but obviously I needed to get back playing. By July I realised that wasn’t going to happen. I had made progress but knew I could never go back playing rugby. It’s gut-wrenching.”

He struggles to watch rugby on television and left early when he went to watch Connacht play Zebre recently. They invited him to the pre-match meal and it was good to meet former colleagues from both clubs.

“It was such a strange feeling and I ended up leaving early because I felt it should’ve been out there. It was strange as well knowing this was the fixture six months earlier where the injury happened. It didn’t sit right with me.”

He completed a degree in Commerce and French last year — doing one of his exams at 1am in University of Otago in New Zealand to coincide with his colleagues back in Galway at NUIG — and has now returned to college to do a Masters in Marketing Practice.

“I knew I needed to do something once I realised rugby was finished. I’m still a bit raw and I find myself watching very little rugby on TV but I’m sure the appetite will come back over time.

“But any time I feel down in the dumps or start feeling sorry for myself I try to keep perspective on everything.

“I know I’m lucky, it could’ve been so much worse and I know how close it was.”

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About the author:

John Fallon

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