Pat McCabe at Brumbies training on Wednesday. He will make his comeback from a neck injury on Thursday night. Photo: Jay CronanPat McCabe is adamant his hard-nosed crash-and-bash style will not be affected by the broken neck that threatened to end his career.
But as he prepares to make his return to rugby on Thursday night, McCabe admits he contemplated an early retirement when doctors told him he had fractured his C1 vertebra last November.
A world away from the Test arena and the Wallabies’ loss to France, McCabe will make a low-key return to action when he plays for the ACT XV against Tonga A at Viking Park.
It’s the first step in his journey back to the ACT Brumbies line-up and into the Wallabies squad. Three times a week he spends in gym sessions wearing a ”horrendous looking mask” and chains around his neck in a bid to strengthen his muscles.
In his first three seasons of Super Rugby, the 24-year-old built his game on being one of the most tenacious players in the competition, willing to put his body on the line to save the team.
More often than not he leaves the field bloodied and bruised. And while there’s a neck brace at the bottom of his cupboard to remind him of how close it was to ending, McCabe will not change his approach.
”I really do think this has given me a greater appreciation of what it’s like to play and how good we’ve got it as rugby players,” McCabe said.
”Physically, I feel as good as I’ve ever felt and it will take me a couple of weeks to get back into rugby, but it’s just good to be around,” he said.
”I guess it’s just about getting that confidence back and I expect to perform reasonably well, I’ve been training pretty hard. I’ve taken a few knocks on [my neck] at training, nothing changes and hopefully we get through and everything is fine.”
McCabe’s no stranger to pain. He played the entire 2011 season with a broken shoulder and continued to push through the pain barrier to help the Wallabies in their World Cup campaign before having reconstruction surgery.
McCabe is in line to be part of the Brumbies 26-man touring squad to South Africa if he gets through his comeback match unscathed.
The next challenge is fitting him into the team; McCabe plays inside-centre for the Wallabies, but is also capable of playing wing or fullback.
He will play fullback in his comeback match.
Because of the seriousness of his injury, the Brumbies and McCabe don’t want to risk any further problems if he’s not 100 per cent.
He first felt pain at the back of his neck after getting hit in a ruck in the Wallabies’ clash with France last year. He trained the next week, but when the pain increased doctors sent him for scans and he was immediately put in a neck brace.
He wore the brace every day for two months, getting rashes on his neck. He wasn’t allowed to drive and lost 10 kilograms. Slowly he has increased his training load with the Brumbies and has resumed full contact sessions.
But he spends time alone in the gym building strength in his neck to ensure he doesn’t suffer any setbacks.
”Until you get some knocks and bumps on it, that’s when you get the confidence back,” McCabe said.
”The uncertainty surrounding it was pretty tough. But when I was in the neck brace they said if I did everything right it would heal well, so it was a matter of doing the time.
”I probably had a few moments where I thought about what I would have to do if I didn’t play again, but everyone was confident.”
THURSDAY: ACT XV v TONGA A at Viking Park, 4.30pm: ACT XV: 1. Ruaidhri Murphy, 2. Robbie Abel, 3. Ruan Smith, 4. Etienne Oosthuizen, 5. Leon Power, 6. Jordan Smiler, 7. Colby Faingaa, 8. Tim Cree, 9. Mark Swanepoel, 10. Zack Holmes, 11. Stephan Van Der Walt, 12. Rodney Iona, 13. Jordan Rapana, 14. Tom Cox, 15. Pat McCabe. Reserves: 16. Josh Mann-Rea, 17. Ray Dobson, 18. Les Makin, 19. Gareth Clouston, 20. Ben McGee, 21. Beau Mokotupu, 22. Sam Windsor, 23. Andrew Barrell.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.