Horsman completes 10-year journey from cancer to compete with the best

The Worcester prop forward tells James Corrigan why being selected to play for his country is a dream come true
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The Independent Online

Prop forwards do not cry. And even when they do, few admit it. Chris Horsman is one of the honourable exceptions. He sits down and opens his heart with all the sincerity he did those tear ducts three weeks ago. That was when he was finally told he was going to the World Cup. In his words: "I had completed the circle, a journey that began 10 years ago."

Rugby players can normally be relied upon to recall where it all began; in a backyard with relatives or a local park with mates, and Horsman would no doubt oblige if pressed in this regard. But there is a more obvious starting point to his inspirational story, one that he has revisited in his memories this last month – 1997, doctor's surgery, Gloucestershire.

"You know, when you're 19 and are diagnosed with testicular cancer, it's quite straightforward," he says. "You have the operation, you go through the chemotherapy and at that age you move on, you accept it. But 10 months on from being given the all-clear I was diagnosed with having lymphoid cancer. That was the one that I really struggled with. You go to see the doctor, thinking your life's back on track and they sort of say, 'We're going to give you 50-50 to make Christmas'. And you're already in October. Yeah, you do tend to worry a little bit."

When the young tight-head, then with Bath, emerged with his life and a gratitude no one could ever truly quantify for the medics and staff at the Royal Marsden in Sutton, nine months had elapsed and the World Cup in Wales was approaching. Desperate to relaunch a career at The Rec that had barely got past the apprentice stage, Horsman watched the proceedings in Cardiff and made a promise to himself.

"By then I realised my health was going to be OK," he says. "But whether I was going to make it as a professional rugby player was very much in the balance. I was finding it all a real trial. It was hard enough to get through the week's training, let alone perform at the end of it. I remember going around [the hooker] Mark Regan's house, because he wasn't in the England squad, and watching a few of the games and thinking, 'Bloody hell, this is incredible – this is what you've to aim for'."

There were other, rather more pressing targets to be taken care of first. "It was all very gradual, but then it had to be. The first part of the plan was obviously just to make sure I didn't die and the next thing was to just get myself well. Then it was, 'Let's get fit and try to play rugby again, at any level'. From there it was to earn my way as a professional and see how far I could get with that. In fact, it wasn't until three years ago when I said to myself, 'Right, I'm going to play in this next World Cup for Wales'. It was a conscious decision, and to me it was all about proving that you can do anything if you try hard enough. Anything really is possible."

He had every reason to believe in achieving the supposedly unachievable. Grace had already arrived and Dan was on the way.

"I was told I wouldn't be able to have kids, so they're a couple of miracles in themselves," he says. "It is the family I always wanted."

Ultimately, the waterworks sprang into motion last month when he returned home from the team hotel and informed his wife and children he would, indeed, be on yesterday's plane to France. Ever since he had chosen Wales over his birthplace in 2004 his boarding pass had been almost inevitable, although Horsman has long understood the merit in taking nothing for granted.

"There's always self-doubt and it was really emotional," he said. "I sat there with my family and said, 'I'm going to the World Cup.' It was a decade since I first discovered about the cancer and it was just such an amazing feeling of satisfaction and pride.

"I'd put so much in getting there. I never thought when I was lying in that hospital bed that I would ever experience something like this. The outlook for even playing rugby again was pretty bleak, really, and there were tough times after. There was when Bath got rid of me and told me I wasn't up to it, being farmed out on loan and then taking the decision to move to Wales.

"I had to take massive pay cuts to play for teams like Bridgend and then, when it all became regions, my one, the Celtic Crusaders, went into liquidation. I had to start all over. So to finally get the reward, well, I make no qualms about it, I did cry. Not blubbering like a child or anything, just happy tears. And tears of relief."

There might have been the odd sceptical raised eyebrow when he turned down England to wait for his residential eligibility for Wales, but they have long since lowered into an accepting nod. Commuting from Porthcawl to his club, Worcester, (he has recently moved his family back to Bristol) he learnt to hurt like only a Welsh rugby fanatic can hurt.

"We players do feel it," he says. "A lot more than some supporters might think. When we get a kicking on the field and then another in the papers or what have you afterwards, we have to accept it. Some might say it's only a game of rugby, but it isn't to us – it's our lives, our identity, our passion.

"Believe it, there is so much of all those qualities in this squad. We are evolving and developing, although we know that we can't expect people to believe us until we start putting it together. But I have total faith in those leading me and those around me."

Whatever, in glorious victory or ignominious defeat, Horsman will and should remain a role model. Heroism is not a badge he wears at all comfortably, even though he feels a responsibility to raise awareness about the disease, particularly in the early detection of testicular cancer.

"I don't like praise, I am quite reserved," he says. "People have said to me, 'Isn't it great what you have done?' But you never look at it that way. My recovery and where I've got to might sound spectacular, but it doesn't feel that way when you're going through it. It feels more surreal.

"Anyone who has health problems just has to battle them the best they can. I am no different from a child who has recovered from leukaemia, and neither is Lance Armstrong – we are all the same in that respect. But I do appreciate I am playing for the national side and that people will hear what I've been through. And if I've given just one person who's ill a bit of hope and made them feel better for one day, for that one hour when they've been going through their treatment, well, I feel honoured."

That is a sentiment plainly in Horsman and when he talks of the World Cup he outlines the entire experience and not merely the 80 minutes between sticks.

"No, it's the whole thing," he confirms. "Whether I play every single game or none at all I am just going to soak up every last bit. Of course, the rugby is everything, but it's the little things as well.

"It was like when we are at our summer training camp in France and we had some time off. Will [James, the Gloucester lock], Alfie [Gareth Thomas, the Wales captain] and I hired a few bicycles from reception and just went off exploring. You sometimes forget how great it is being with a couple of mates like that, stopping for a coffee and just having a good old chat and laugh. You have to make the most of those moments."

Horsman is certainly determined to make the most of the next month, six weeks or however long Wales's involvement lasts. He has travelled too far not to.

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