Returning to rugby after serious injury is a minefield, says Barry Stewart

RETURNING to the packed arenas of professional rugby is taxing the mind of Scotland winger Thom Evans at the moment, but there is one man now embarking on a career in the Edinburgh finance sector who is living proof that serious injuries need not spell the end of a glittering career.

Evans has recovered sufficiently from the serious spinal injury he suffered playing for Scotland against Wales in the recent RBS Six Nations Championship to be able to walk unaided and enjoy light running within just two months. He is now considering the possibility of a return to rugby in the future if his recovery continues to follow current lines and he comes through a series of the testing hurdles he still has to face.

His injury and that suffered by Barry Stewart, the former Scotland prop, were quite different. That has to be made clear and Stewart is not of a mind to offer advice to a fellow injured pro, but Stewart's story provides an illustration of the difficulties in coming back and also a sense of hope for players who do suffer serious injury and face the reality of a life without the sport they crave.

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Stewart is now 34 and works in his native Edinburgh as a trainee investment manager with Brewin Dolphin, the company that sponsors the Scottish Schools Cup competitions and the capital's touch rugby leagues. Nearly a decade ago, just four caps and four years into life as a professional he suffered a spinal injury that forced the SRU to call time on his career.

But the words of a neurosurgeon at the time, who insisted the injury did not make Stewart any more or less likely to suffer a serious accident on the field of play than any team-mate, persuaded him that the union was wrong; that he could play on. He left Scotland, paid for his own insurance initially, and enjoyed a further seven years as a professional prop in the Guinness Premiership and Europe with Sale Sharks and Northampton.

Reflecting now, he insisted: "I don't have any regrets. When you see injuries suffered by guys like Thom, or worse, when guys end up in wheelchairs, you do pause for a moment and think about how lucky you are. But while I was able to return to the game, albeit controversially, it will be entirely a decision for Thom whether he comes back. I would not begin to offer advice to Thom or to try to draw comparisons between what I went through and what he went through. But, I do know that when you suffer a serious injury like I did you enter something of a minefield in terms of working out if you'll ever play again. It's far from straightforward."

Stewart made his Scotland debut against New Zealand in 1996, having only weeks before turned 21, and suffered a painful debut against the legendary All Blacks pack of Craig Dowd, Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Robin and Zinzan Brooke, Ian and Michael Jones, and Josh Kronfeld. He faced Australia that November before Scotland turned back to more experienced tightheads. Unbeknown to the young Stewart, his spine had already suffered injury and when he forced his way back into the Scotland XV, to again face New Zealand on tour in 2000, the cracks, literally, were beginning to show.

"I had suffered from what they call 'stingers' since that first Test year," he explained, "and we believed that was just nerve-root damage, but they became more frequent. I got crunched in a match for Edinburgh and then crashed head-on into an Italian player's hip or knee in an 'A' international at Old Anniesland and it went 'squelch'. I wasn't hospitalised so it wasn't like Thom's injury in Cardiff. I played on and we won the game, but later I started to lose feeling in my arm. It improved but I was really struggling towards the end of the season, with a lack of power in my left arm.

"Scans showed I had a compression fracture and historic fractures that had been there for a while. The SRU medics took a good look at it and were not happy. They said they would honour my contract for the remainder of the season, but advised me to give up.

"I didn't feel it was that bad. I saw a neurosurgeon state on paper that he didn't think the injuries I had would make me more likely to suffer a serious injury in a game than any other player, it gave me the belief that I could come back from it.

"I knew that it would not heal again; it wasn't like a broken leg. But when everything was presented to me and the risks outlined, I knew I could play again. It took a bit of work, having to look at insurance, convince my family it was the right thing, and having to fork out a significant part of my salary on insurance, but it all came good."

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With the SRU unwilling to insure Stewart, he headed south and was signed by Sale Sharks. He played for them for more than five seasons, winning the Guinness Premiership, European Challenge Cup twice and the Powergen Cup, and three years ago he moved to Northampton, where he played alongside Tom Smith in a front row that helped the Saints back into the top flight and last year kept them from relegation and secured the European Challenge Cup title.

Stewart retired then and as he plots a new career he takes great delight in watching Northampton contest the Premiership title knowing he played a part in helping the club back up there.

Stewart added: "After three years back in the game the insurance was paid again, and in the seven or so seasons I had in England I experienced more success than I ever did or would have had I stayed in Scotland.

"It was unfortunate that the Scotland selectors would not pick me again for international rugby, but I was pleased just to play again. I took a gamble and it may be the old injuries come back to haunt me in ten or 15 years' time, but I believe I did the right thing for me. It's different for every person.

"Some have the opportunity to come back, some don't, and for some like me it's not clear-cut. I could not offer any advice to anyone, because it's a personal thing.

"I have an idea how Thom and others in these positions feel because it's a lonely, frustrating time when you suffer a serious injury and wonder if you'll play again, especially when you have reached that pinnacle of playing for Scotland. It's especially hard watching your friends and teammates out there running around and enjoying themselves. But injury is part of rugby and we all know that. I would certainly pass on my best wishes to Thom for a good and healthy recovery. He will make the right decision for him and his future."