Just two weeks after his Super Rugby debut, the Australian centre had to call it a day

Long-term injury: Jim Stewart on recovering from a dislocated neck

At the very end of his first full-time season with the Waratahs, centre Jim Stewart made his Super Rugby debut, against the Auckland Blues. But just a fortnight after that day he suffered an accident that would end his career.

“Two weeks later I was part of Sydney Uni Rugby Club as well, playing in our local competition,” the former Australia U20 centre tells Rugby World of that fateful day three years ago. “It was maybe just before half-time and I went in to make a tackle. There was nothing ‘dangerous’ about it, I just kind of fell awkwardly.

“I landed on my head and neck and then kind of busted it to the side.

“Long story short, I’ve gone down to get an MRI after the game. That’s when I freaked out and realised I’d dislocated my neck. I’d dislocated my C4 and C5 (vertebrae). Then I pretty much went straight into surgery the next day.

Long-term injury: Jim Stewart

Support network: Stewart with his family (Jim Stewart)

“That night I found out from the surgeon the news. He came in to see me and the first thing he said was ‘Are you studying?’ I was a bit like, ‘what’s going on here?’. And he said, ‘Well, you’re not going to be playing again.’ So I found out pretty quickly that I wasn’t gonna play any more, that my career was over.”

He was 22 when this happened. Two weeks after his first elite game, he was having to consider a new life.

It was an innocuous enough incident. Getting fended on the chest, Stewart grabbed the attacker and fell with him, as they went down together. He doesn’t remember everything about the contact but as he came up from the hit, his arms were numb. He remembers standing up, feeling like he only had 10% energy in his whole body – “It was kind of like a dream and I was floating, I couldn’t function and my equilibrium was off. Not like I was concussed but the left side of my body felt like it was 50kg heavier than the right. It was a strange experience.”

Long-term injury: Jim Stewart

His neck: a scan (Jim Stewart)

Stewart says that any fear of the seriousness of his injury was lost in the immediate aftermath, overwhelmed by his sense of loss about the career he had fought so hard for. Right after it happened, he believes he made another tackle – an anecdote that shows the disregard he had for his own body, he admits.

Since the curtain fell on his career, Stewart is grateful for the help he got from the Tahs, Sydney Uni and Rugby Union Players Australia, offering assistance whenever they could. Having career-ending insurance also helped him at a time he had to reassess his life, to find something new.

But there’s no easy road back through rehab. “If I had my time again I’d seek out others who had been through that experience before,” he tells us.

In the current issue of Rugby World magazine – in shops now – Gloucester’s Henry Trinder talks at length about his experiences of coming back from long-term injury. The English centre contacted other stars who had snapped their Achilles as soon as possible after his diagnosis.

Transitioning out of the game is another big topic for players. Stewart recalls the naivety he approached this with at first, going for a coffee with someone who asked what field he would like to go into. His vague response went back: ‘business’.

“You can have an absolute identity crisis (when you’re badly injured) because your whole life is consumed by rugby,” Stewart tells us. “From the minute you wake up on a Monday to the Sunday, everything’s just consumed, from your thoughts to everything you do. When I was playing I didn’t have time to figure out what I like doing or even have a plan for after rugby. I had this goal to be a professional rugby player and that was kind of it.”

So many of his friends still play at the top level. He tells them and younger guys to spend time focusing on themselves, what their interests are. He is a firm believer in having a varied life, advising players on their day off to “try new things” even if it’s just a few hours of work experience. “Leaving new things to the last minute in your career makes it so much harder for you.”

Long-term injury: Jim Stewart

Focused: The centre during Waratahs training (Getty Images)

Physically he feels pretty good three years later – he may have lost flexibility in his neck but he can still go to the gym and surf. Personality-wise, he feels like a different person though. He is a wealth manager with a vastly changed outlook. “I had to reconstruct who I was as a person,” he explains. “I’ve got completely different interests. I even talk differently!”

Being so young when his freak injury occurred may be a stroke of luck in the grander scheme. Outsiders can never know how tough, demanding, frustrating it can be to rehabilitate. The two years he was covered for allowed him to explore his interests, but it does not mean it was easy.

We hear players talk so often about how it can all be over in an instant that it may have passed beyond cliche. But when a player like Stewart tells his story and then offers advice, it would be wise to listen to him.

To read our long-read on long-term injury, check out the new issue of Rugby World.

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