Hinshelwood's body cries 'enough'

At 28 and with 19 caps for Scotland, the centre should be in his prime. He has just retired
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is only two weeks ago that Ben Hinshelwood was on the bench at Franklin's Gardens, wearing his gear underneath his tracksuit, ready to do battle for Worcester Warriors against Northampton Saints. He never did get to join the fray in the Guinness Premiership contest that day. The centre-cum-full-back had already fought his last battle on a rugby pitch.

Nine days ago, Hinshelwood was forced to announce his retirement from the game. Last Tuesday, a headline in the Worcester Evening News declared: "Warriors search for new centre." On Thursday, the retired Warrior was still in a state of some bewilderment. "I'm getting a bit of treatment on my back," Hinshelwood said, "sorting a few things out at the club, and thinking about what I'm going to do with my future."

Five years of full-time rugby has left Hinshelwood with two torn discs and a chronic back problem. He was told that he was damaging the quality of his future life with every game he played. At 28, he has become this month's permanent casualty from the unforgiving demands of the English Premiership.

In October, it was Ian Peel, the Newcastle Falcons prop, aged 29. In November, it was Alex Sanderson, the Saracens flanker, aged 26. At the same time, north of Hadrian's Wall, Hinshelwood's sometime Scotland team-mate Tom Philip has had to put his highly promising career on indefinite hold. The Edinburgh centre is suffering from a chronic back complaint - at the age of 22.

"Yeah, mate, it's a brutal game," Hinshelwood reflected, his laugh caught between the ironic and the rueful when informed that the purpose of this article was to highlight the increasing toll being taken by professional rugby. "Training can be just as hard sometimes, as well. It's a pretty tough sport on your body, as you can see by the number of people who are having problems now."

In Hinshelwood's case, the problems started 16 months ago. "It wasn't from a particular game," he said. "It was from pre-season last year. A lot of the time I've just had to take painkillers to get through games. I've had a lot of physio and changed my training and tried to manage it as best as I could. That certainly helped, but the thing was I was still getting worse.

"It's affected the rest of my life, too. Just going out for a meal, I sit down for a while and get up like I'm an 80-year-old. That's been one of the frustrating things about it: you can't just leave it behind when you're away from the club; it follows you everywhere.

"I had hoped that taking a year out from international rugby might help ease things this season, but I had spasms in my back after a game just recently and went to see a specialist. He looked through some scans and told me what was going on, and gave me the options. He basically said I was doing permanent damage and that I should give up.

"I'll still need treatment, but if I stop the rugby and the training, there's a chance that I won't need surgery and that I could have a normal life. My back will never get better, but I could be symptom-free. That's what I'm aiming for."

It was only by chance that Hinshelwood became a professional rugby player in the first place. Born and raised in Melbourne, he moved to Britain six years ago to work at the London branch of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Playing as a part-timer with Bedford, though, the 6ft 3in powerhouse of a back-line runner started getting himself noticed. Within two years he had turned professional with Worcester and made his debut for Scotland - following in the footsteps of his father, Sandy, who played on the wing for Scotland and the British Lions before emigrating to Australia in 1971.

Despite the painful way it has all ended, Ben has no regrets about having turned professional. "Not at all," he insisted. "I've had some great times. I've done more than I ever expected to, met some great people, and achieved quite a lot. It's just unfortunate that it's come to an end. It happens to everyone at some stage. It just happens to have happened to me at 28." At 28, and with 19 caps - two fewer than his father's tally.

Still, Hinshelwood Jnr did get to play in a World Cup quarter-final for Scotland - and against his native country in his homeland. He came on as replacement for Glenn Meltalfe in the 33-16 defeat against Australia in Brisbane two years ago. He also played at full-back in the Scotland team who beat South Africa at Murrayfield, 21-6, in November 2002. It was the first Scottish victory against the Springboks since 1969 - when Sandy Hinshelwood was playing on the wing.

With an English wife and the foundations of a career in the City behind him, the son of Sandy plans to stay in Britain and return to the banking profession. He also intends to continue his involvement in rugby, as a spectator.

"I've always enjoyed watching rugby and I don't see any reason for that to change now," he reflected. "It is a tough sport, but I wouldn't say I feared for the younger players in professional rugby right now. What's happened to me is the kind of thing that happens in every sport. In any sport you play, you run the risk of having problems with your body."