Rugby League has been described as a civilised form of war with no-one dying, but the pain and agony some of the sport’s bravest warriors endured in 2018 were characteristic of live combat on a real battlefield, or blunt force trauma suffered in a car accident.
In tribute to the teams and the players’ resilience during a tough campaign, Millner and Knight compiled a list of the ten worst injuries suffered during the 2018 NRL season.
1: Tim Browne had little hesitation choosing “quality of life” ahead of an extended rugby league career as he was being rushed into ICU on a stretcher for emergency surgery. The Penrith Panthers prop was in excruciating pain after rupturing his bowel – also injuring his kidneys and spleen – in a seemingly routine collision with a North Sydney rival in March.
Browne initially thought he had been winded. Until he collapsed and began bringing up blood from horrific injuries later described by a doctor as not only more characteristic of a car accident that a rugby match, but also the worst he had witnessed coming off a sports field.
Having already suffered a fractured skull and a leg infection that almost led to amputation, at age 30 Browne realised the battlefield had taken its final toll on his mind and body and it was time to chime out on his career.
Before undergoing surgery to remove a part of his small intestine, Browne admitted he had already decided, “no more, I can’t. I’ve got a little girl now and too much life to live.”
2: The sickening brutality of the hit Penrith wing Josh Mansour copped in his collision with Gold Coast Titan rival Anthony Don’s knee was summed up by the Sydney club doctor who described the injury as the worst cheekbone-battering he had seen in 39-years.
Mansour suffered five separate fractures to his cheek and eye socket and was at risk of losing his eye. The 28-year-old was rushed to hospital for surgery and 12 weeks of recuperation as many of his fans feared that his career was over.
The player later revealed that his face had “practically caved in” like a jigsaw puzzle after being hit with what he described as “like being whacked in the head with a baseball bat”.
His surgeon said he had treated over 2000 injuries of this nature and experienced only about a dozen as severe, all resulting from motor car accidents or injuries to soldiers.
Mansour returned and played for the Panthers later in the season, scoring eight tries in 15 appearances in 2018, but admitted that if he suffered another similar blow to his face, he would run the risk of losing an eye.
3: Rooster back-rower Ryan Matterson was not prepared for the agony he had to endure following his third knock to the head in as many weeks and a painful period of recovery for concussion.
The final blow, a kick to the face from Kodi Nikorima in the round 11 clash between the Roosters and the Brisbane Broncos, forced Matterson off the field for two months of recuperation during a period when he rarely trained with teammates.
Matterson later recalled that his anguish had begun on the night after the match when he experienced pins and needles down his leg and began to have worries about the severity of his injury as the symptoms worsened during the night.
In the ensuing months and weeks Matterson experienced sensitivity to light and noise and tired easily. He visited neurologists and a chiropractor before returning to action on the Rooster bench.
In September the 23-year-old announced that he had signed a three-year deal with the Wests Tigers from the start of the 2019 season.
4: It was the tragedy that turned to triumph as Roosters star Cooper Cronk rose Lazarus-like to defy medical opinion that had read the last rites on his chances of playing in the 2018 NRL Grand Final.
A 15cm fracture right through the scapula suffered in the preliminary final against the Rabbitohs had five shoulder specialists stating emphatically that the halfback would not be able to play in the showpiece against the Melbourne Storm due to an injury that was synonymous with a car crash.
Cronk had other ideas and was given four injections during the week – including a double dose just before the game and at halftime – as the Roosters delayed the decision on his inclusion until just before kick-off.
The gun 34-year-old had to box clever on defence, but the sheer presence of the one-armed bandit proved inspirational to a Roosters team that stunned the 82,000 crowd and the Storm, prevailing 21-6 to lift the trophy for the 14th time in the club’s history with Cronk collecting his third winner’s medal.
5: Antonio Winterstein knew a premature end to his NRL career had come by round 18 of the 2018 season as he struggled to walk after games from a chronic knee injury.
The Cowboys winger announced his immediate retirement, having played 16 games this season and calling time on a 214-game career with the realisation that he has three active kids, whom he would “still like to chase around the park”.
Winterstein had struggled with the knee injury throughout his career, encompassing an initial a two-year stint with the Broncos before joining North Queensland in 2011 and ultimately hanging up his boots as the club’s fifth highest try scorer.
The 30-year-old said the knee had deteriorated significantly in 2018 and doctors had subsequently advised him to quite in the interests of his longer-term health and wellbeing.
The New Zealand-born Samoan walked away from the game having played a key role in the Cowboys’ watershed premiership triumph of 2015, a season in which he starred as the club’s top try-scorer with a career high 16 touchdowns culminating in a grand final appearance on the wing against his former side, the Broncos.
6: Few players have been cursed by injury at such a young stage of their careers than promising 21-year-old five-eighth Lachlan Croker.
For the first eight games of the 2018 season, things were looking bright for the Manly Sea Eagles prospect until his world collapsed with the third season-ending knee injury of his short career.
On his return to training at the end of the season, Croker discovered that his previous starting role had been taken for the start of the 2019 season by new-recruit Kane Elgey and that he would have to fight his way back into the top flight from the development squad.
Another knee reconstruction saw Manly taking no chances with Croker, who returned to light duties in training and was not pencilled in for a round one return next year.
Croker must be wondering what he must do to appease the NRL gods.
His 2016 NRL debut with Canberra lasted less than 40 minutes and ended with a shoulder injury. Then he ruptured his ACL playing for Raiders’ feeder club Mounties later that season, which sidelined him for a year.
Croker spent two years in the wilderness nursing his injury until he was thrown a lifeline by Manly.
7: Tom Trbojevic carried the scars of battle into 2018 in a crescendo that culminated in the flying boot of forward Joseph Ofahengaue fracturing his cheekbone in Manly’s final round loss to the Broncos that plunged a bitter-sweet season into a painful ending.
Or so everyone thought.
Dazed and taken off the field with brutal swelling on a black eye, the Sea Eagles’ fullback was forced into reflection of a rollercoaster ride that had first hit a low with an ankle injury against Canberra in round 4. The No.1 returned, albeit limping against Wests Tigers under a cloud of suspicion for being rushed back too soon.
Trbojevic shouldered on, shining in a sorry looking Manly side to make his State of Origin debut for New South Wales. Even after surgery to have two plates inserted in his face and a six-week recovery period forecast to have ended his season, Trbojevic couldn’t be kept from the battlefield for long.
Driven by green and gold aspirations, he recovered quicker than expected and re-emerged to earn selection for the Kangaroos at wing, scoring two tries against Tonga in October.
8: In war some are killed by a sudden and swift bullet, while others succumb to a series of mounting injuries, as was the case with Cronulla’s star second-rower Wade Graham who lasted until the Sharks finals loss to the Sydney Roosters.
The final blow that ended the star’s season was a torn ACL following a fumble and collision with Isaac Liu in an incident that added insult to injury, as the Roosters scored a try in the ensuing passage of play.
Graham limped off the field and may have been wondering how he had made it to early September, considering the injury ravaged ordeal in 2018 that had robbed him of the chance to retain his NSW State of Origin jumper following hamstring, groin, concussion and cheekbone issues.
And so, Graham, having already been sidelined from live combat for much of the year, ended the season under the knife, facing a long, hard road to recovery and a tough race against time to be ready for the Sharks’ opening game of the 2019 season.
9: Spare a thought for Luke Keary. The pre-season had barely come to the boil in late-January when the Roosters’ halfback broke his jaw and probably suffered severe whiplash in a freak accident in training and had to have a plate inserted from surgery.
The five-eighth was back in action and scored a try in the Roosters’ round 2 win over the Bulldogs, only to suffer an MCL strain against St George Illawarra in July that again saw him sidelined for several weeks.
Keary returned for the finals towards the sharp end of the season and played a pivotal role in his team’s premiership triumph with a sensational performance against Melbourne Storm in the grand final that earned him the Clive Churchill Medal.
His performance also won him a call-up to the Kangaroos squad, but he had to pass strict concussions tests to make his debut for Australia, starting at five-eighth against New Zealand. He lasted just 12 minutes before being forced to leave the field for further tests and was cleared to start the next game against Tonga.
10: The clock waits for no man, especially in top flight sport where eventually father time and the cascading effect of repeated injuries force even the bravest, most determined warriors into the realisation that the mind is willing, but the body is weak.
And so, the bell tolled in 2018 for Eels co-captain Beau Scott, who wasn’t given the rub of green by the rugby gods to see out the final season of his contract when an ACL injury hastened the inevitable in June.
At least the 34-year-old forward had the satisfaction of looking back on a 244-game career headlined by a triumphant 2010 grand final crescendo with St George Illawarra, three Tests for Australia and 11 State of Origin matches for New South Wales.
Like most of his peers, Scott never got to write the desired final chapter of his career, but he will be able to tell his grandchildren that he lasted 13-years in the top flight, while many of his teammates were cruelly cut down much earlier – either in their prime or before even being able to fulfil their full potential.
Could any of them be eligible to make a no win no fee claim? Let’s hope the guys fair better in 2019!