Australia's 1991 World Cup winner talks golf handicaps, jumping at shadows and medical miracles with Rugby World

Sometimes one autobiography just isn’t enough. Twenty years after publishing a best seller shortly before his international retirement, Michael Lynagh has released a searing read, Blindsided, to cover the stroke that almost took his life in April 2012.

Lynagh’s insights into the stressful existence of a goalkicker – he is still Australia’s record scorer, with 911 – are some of the most searchingly honest views ever published on the subject.

However, taking centre stage in his book is his stroke, an often-fatal condition that occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off. Lynagh describes it as like being hit on the back of the head by a baseball bat, and the story of how this legendary fly-half and 1991 World Cup winner fought back from the brink whilst lying in intensive care in a Brisbane hospital – contemplating whether he had the strength to continue living – is one that will grip any reader.

Rugby World caught up with Lynagh to find out more…

Rugby World: Michael, this is a powerful book…

Michael Lynagh: Yes, when I saw the first draft I thought ‘Jeez, that’s a bit dramatic’. But Mark (Eglinton, the ghostwriter) said, “That’s what you told me and it is dramatic. Don’t play it down.” I’m sure there will people saying it’s embellished but when you see the snippets from my wife (Isabella), my dad, doctors, other people… I found all those comments really interesting because I hadn’t heard them before, how people reacted and thought about it.

RW: You say you had dizzy turns in advance of your stroke. Were they significant?

ML: In hindsight they were probably warning signals. They were like the bed spins you get when you’ve had too much to drink, but they’d go away very quickly. I probably should have gone to the doctor but when I mentioned it to him (later), he said the event that went bang was nothing to do with it really.

RW: What is your take on why the stroke happened?

ML: I was flying to Singapore for a speaking engagement but fell asleep at Dubai and missed the connecting flight. Missing the flight was stressful and then I sat in the airport for 12 hours waiting for the next flight. I literally went from Singapore airport to the golf course, playing in 100% humidity and 30-degree heat. Then I was out that night.

The next day I had another golf game in the heat and that evening was out again. The next day I had the dinner, and then I found out that as soon as you miss a flight your bookings are all gone, so I was supposed to fly to Brisbane the next day but didn’t have a flight. I was in the hotel trying to sort it out until four in the morning, after speaking at a dinner, which I find pretty stressful anyway.

Finally, I got a flight the next day. I was tired and dehydrated, and got off the plane to play golf again, in 30-degree heat again, and having barely slept for four days. While all this might not sound stressful, everything I did was a contributing factor – sleep deprivation, jetlag, dehydration, vigorously swinging a golf club.

Then I went and had a couple of beers that night and bang.

RW: So it was a cumulative effect but with a final catalyst?

ML: It was like the perfect storm of everything coming together and had I not laughed at a joke as the beer went down and choked, nothing would have happened. It needed an event to cause the stroke, and that was the choking. (Lynagh suffered a split vertebral artery, causing a blood clot.)

RW: In hospital, they decided not to operate but dehydrate you (through drugs) to reduce the swelling…

ML: Yes, it wasn’t very comfortable. They woke me every half an hour, for a day and a half, because one of the signs that things are getting worse is that you start to get in a lot of pain but also you lose your speech.

I’d be getting off to sleep, then they’d wake me and ask, “What day is it? Who’s the prime minister of Australia? Where are you?” I couldn’t remember the intensive care unit, the ICU. I said, “I know where I am, it’s where really sick people go, I just can’t recall the name!” I couldn’t really remember the days but knew it was somewhere between my son’s birthday

Michael Lynagh

Knockout blow: Scoring the late try that beat Ireland in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final (Pic: Inpho)

and my sister’s birthday. They’d also check to see if I still had strength in both hands, and make me lift my legs. After a while they’d wake me up and I’d go, “Julia Gillard, 14th April, give me your hands and I’ll squeeze them.” I’m glad they didn’t ask me the prime minister question this week, we’re on our fifth in five years!

If things had started to get worse, I was ready to go and be operated on immediately. The operation is a big one, and you’re sitting there and you can’t see and you’ve got this terrible head, you know it’s pretty grave, then they tell you what this operation entails and you think, ‘Jesus, this is serious. This is proper “may not wake up from this” sort of stuff.’ But I was ready.

Then they sat at the end of the bed and said, “We’re not going to do it. You’re functioning too well. We don’t know how but you are, and we would never forgive ourselves if we did the operation and something happened. So we’re going to go this way first.” And that became three days of hell (with the dehydration process).

RW: Did being a fit, ex-professional sportsman help you beat the odds?

ML: No, I think I was just lucky. Because it hits and that’s it. Neurologists talk about being like electricians but they say they can’t fix the wiring in your head. And it depends what wiring gets touched. In the book there’s a picture of the area of stroke on the brain scan. Normally with that size everything gets hit – walking, hands, speech, everything.

Michael Lynagh

Model pro: At Saracens, Lynagh would visit away grounds before matches to get used to the pitch (Getty)

I didn’t have anything, except for my eyes. They can’t explain it. I put it down to pure luck. And at the second stage when they started to do the dehydrating, I see that as the time when being relatively fit and healthy, and pretty dogged and determined, that’s where they kicked in. The fact that I wasn’t hit too bad, that’s just absolute luck, because the doctors can’t explain it.

RW: You were left with impaired vision that hasn’t changed to this day. Yet you’re on the way to repassing your driving test?

ML: Yes, I’ve passed the physical and mental tests and can legally drive at the moment, though I’m still awaiting the medical ratification. It’s a matter of scanning, and hearing becomes quite interesting. So having the window down is helpful. But bikes, pedestrians don’t make a lot of noise. Also, being aware of what’s behind you, what’s around you, just taking it pretty easy is the key. They say that after about five years following an event like this you’re normally alright to drive again, you’ve adjusted enough. But this has been three and a half.

RW: So that’s the expectation, you just adjust mentally?

ML: Yeah, if I look here I can’t see you but (turns head) if I look here I can, so it’s not a big thing. Literally I can’t see you now. There’s no physical difference in vision but you compensate for it. And sometimes my physio, when treating old injuries, he thinks my neck clicks are because I’m turning a bit to the left a lot of the time.

So it’s about compensation and I think it’s in the book about train stations and tube stations, when it’s random events and people are coming from different angles, that’s difficult. Walking along Oxford Street, most people are coming towards you but then there are people who come out of shops…

RW: Do you have to walk slower?

ML: No, I’m a quick walker. I guess my evasive skills were always pretty good and they’ve come into play with all this. I might see a shadow on the ground and I’ll jump. Sometimes I react and there’s nothing there. Or there’s someone coming and I get a fright because I haven’t seen it. And people look at you and go “Alright?” If I walk with somebody I’ll put them on my left.

At my desk (at a commercial property investment group), sometimes people come and stand beside me and I don’t know they’re there. I get a feeling and then turn. But they forget as well.

RW: Is it a good thing that people forget you’ve had a stroke, because it means you’re treated normally?

ML: Oh yes, I don’t want to be treated any differently. There was one job that I went for – I don’t know if it’s in the book. I was the only candidate left, and I was meeting other board members, and as soon as I’d mentioned that I’d had a stroke, it was “What? When? How?” Funnily enough I didn’t get the job. I’m sure it was because of that. I was a ‘health risk’.

RW: How different is your life now?

ML: Not that different. I said to Isabella, “If I’m sleeping leave me alone, there are days when I’m going to need afternoon naps on the couch.” She said, “So it’s no different to normal then?” But I did sleep a lot anyway. My rule is still that if I’m tired I have a sleep. I have sat in meetings when I first came back (to work), at about three or four o’clock, and it was hard, so you deal with that by scheduling meetings in the morning.

RW: I know you love golf. How that’s going?

ML: I almost gave it up. It was terribly difficult because I played off seven or eight, and I loved playing. And I came out and… (despairing shrug) I didn’t play for a year and a bit, apart from having a bit of a putt. Putts this long I was missing this far to the right, every one. So okay, aim a bit more to the left. And then I hit it left instead of straight.

Michael Lynagh

Master’s voice: Lynagh is an analyst for Sky TV and part of ITV’s team for this year’s World Cup (Pic: Inpho)

I remember playing one game and I just said, “This is too frustrating.” It really was, because you knew what you were capable of doing, and then you weren’t capable of playing at all. I couldn’t hit the ball very well, everything’s changed. I came home and said, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to play any more.” And Isabella said, “No, no, just see it as another hurdle that you have to get over. Just be glad you’re out there. You’ve got beautiful courses to play on, you’ve got great friends that don’t mind if you don’t play as well; in fact, they’ll probably take more money off you because of it!”

So I started to change my attitude, and I realised that it’s just nice to be out there. My handicap went up to 16, it’s now back down to 12. I played the other week and on one nine I shot one under.

RW: One under on the outward nine?!

ML: Yeah! But that was the best I’ve played since before the stroke. The back nine wasn’t great but I still played to single figures, which was great. My putting had been a real issue; I’d three or four putt from ten feet. My depth perception wasn’t great, I worked that out along the road too. You know how you get bumps along the footpath? I was tripping up because my depth perception has obviously been affected a little bit. So you have to deal with that. Over time I think my brain’s compensated and worked it out.

RW: So can this ‘compensation’ take you back to a handicap of seven again?

ML: Possibly, yes. I’ve got some bad habits now because when it happened it made me try and change things to compensate. But I play reasonably enough to be competitive. I’m at the stage where I could hit 100 one day, 80 the next. I’m not very consistent but I’m not the only bloke in the world who’s like that. Some of my friends say it’s got nothing to do with your sight, it’s called age! They could be right.

Blindsided, by Michael Lynagh, is published by HarperCollins, RRP £20.