Family crisis for England U-20 coach: 'Anguish of my son's fight for life'

Nigel Redman's world was turned upside down when his 14-year-old prodigy Rhys collapsed with a freak illness
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The Independent Online

England may once again have underachieved in the Six Nations, but the future looks bright. On Friday night, the Red Rose Under-20s defeated Ireland to complete the Grand Slam. The talented squad had already beaten Wales, Italy, France and Scotland, although their coach, Nigel Redman, did not make the journey north of the border last weekend. He had far more important things on his mind.

"One minute he was captaining his school team in a sevens match and the next he was fighting for his life," Redman said. He was talking about his son Rhys, a promising 14-year-old No 8 who contracted a rare illness and is now recovering from a brain operation.

"I watched him playing rugby and afterwards he complained of a headache. I checked him over and then took him to the RUH Hospital in Bath. He was discharged, but the following day he was still suffering and he suddenly collapsed. He couldn't move, couldn't talk. Fluids had built up and were pressing between the skull and the brain. They had to open him up to drain the pus from his head. Apparently it was a normal sinus condition that became infected. It is so rare it affects two people in three million. Rhys was just incredibly unlucky."

Rhys was then switched to the Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, where he spent four days in intensive care on a life-support machine. "I don't know when he will leave hospital but he's getting better," Redman said. "On Wednesday he was able to walk. He managed 20 paces and his speech is getting better. He is getting stronger. They say there is no reason why he should not make a full recovery."

Rhys is captain of both the rugby and cricket teams at Bath's Prior Park College. "He is an outstanding leader and is brilliant with people," Nigel said. "He's very mature and is good at doing the right thing."

On Friday, Redman was reunited with the Under-20s. The previous weekend, when they beat Scotland 41-15 on the fourth leg of their campaign, he was at his son's bedside. They had watched England – the senior version – lose to the Scots on television.

"Rhys fell asleep in the second half. I put it down to the fact that he was very tired rather than what he was watching.

"There's a couple of points I'd like to make about this whole experience. The first is that Rhys is a remarkable young man, a real fighter. He was so ill. He was taken ill extremely quickly and it was a very, very nasty time. It was a freak illness but nevertheless people should be made aware of it.

"The other thing is that the staff at the hospital – he's in the Barbara Russell children's ward – have been quite brilliant, as have the rugby community, who have rallied round. People I played with have visited Rhys and he's responded well to that."

The Redman family came from Cardiff, but Nigel did not start playing rugby until he moved to Weston-super-Mare. "I was a large and lazy 15-year-old and they were looking for big lads." At 16, he played for the Under-19s; at 20, after only five years in the game, he played for England, going on to win 20 caps, the first in 1984, the last in 1997.

There is something else unusual about his career. Though a lock forward, he has played for his country in the front, second and back rows. In the inaugural World Cup in 1987, England, a shambolic England it has to be said, were knocked out by Wales in Brisbane and when Paul Rendall suffered an eye injury, Redman played at tighthead prop.

He joined Bath in 1983, retiring in 1999. He played 350 times for the club when they were one of the best in the land and, uniquely, featured in 10 cup finals at Twickenham.

As the coach of the England Under-20s, Redman – he is also employed by Sky as an expert rugby analyst – has many of the best young Red Rose players under his charge. If they go on to win full caps, who is to say that one day Redman will not be overseeing them at Twickenham? And who is to say that one day Rhys will not be among them? "It's a really humbling experience coaching these boys," Redman said.

"They are determined to play the right way and there's a lot of talent there. The philosophy is about tempo, about physicality and decision-making."

Qualities, incidentally, that were conspicuously absent from Phil Vickery's team at Murrayfield last week. "What we are looking for," Redman added, "is to lead the way rather than follow. We try to make sure the players have an opportunity to express themselves."

He is in his second year as coach of the Under-20s, and prior to that he shepherded the Under-19s, where he had one Danny Cipriani in his care. "I had no problems with Danny whatsoever," Redman said. "He's a really good professional and a good team man." Redman cites an example. "At the Under-19 world championships in Dubai a couple of seasons ago, Cipriani was knocked out playing against South Africa. It meant that he could not play but he wanted to support the squad, so he volunteered to be the water boy."