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Dan Lydiate: 'I woke up after the op and wiggled my toes... I was so happy'

The Brian Viner Interview: The Wales flanker reveals how his dreams of World Cup glory – and a spell on a farm in Llandrindod Wells – helped him overcome a terrifying accident four years ago

It takes Dan Lydiate about three minutes, on the family farm in mid-Wales, to shear a sheep. He uses the Bowen technique of shearing, but three minutes won't gain him much respect when he arrives some time tomorrow in New Zealand, where the Bowen technique was invented, and where a quick shear takes 45 seconds. What might gain him some respect, however, is his ability to play hard, direct rugby. The big blindside flanker made his international debut for Wales in 2009, but it was not really until this year's Six Nations, in which he excelled especially in the tackle, that he made the No 6 shirt his own.

His crushing tackling, honed back on the farm grappling with errant sheep, is all the more remarkable in light of the broken neck he sustained less than four years ago, playing for Newport-Gwent Dragons. "It was a Heineken Cup match in Perpignan, in October 2007," he tells The Independent, at the Welsh squad's final media day before setting off for the World Cup.

"I was 19, playing in the back row with Colin Charvis and Michael Owen, watching the flares go up on the side of the pitch in Perpignan and thinking how awesome it all was. Then, about 15 minutes in, I saw someone about to break through and made the tackle. I was sat on the floor and someone landed on top of my head. It snapped forward, I heard a crack, and that was it. There was a burning sensation in my arms and legs, and the feeling was coming and going. I knew it wasn't good."

It is an understatement. The youngster had crushed a disc and ruptured every ligament in his neck, and after a stay in a Perpignan hospital, was air-ambulanced back to Wales for an operation to remove the threat of paralysis. Before the procedure he was asked to sign a consent form, which explained that if anything went wrong he could end up in a wheelchair. He signed. "They took a bone graft from my hip, put a plate into my neck and basically screwed me back together. And when I woke up the first thing I did was wiggle my toes. I thought 'happy days'. I was very lucky, because all my training, lifting weights and that, had given me bigger neck muscles than the average Joe. That's what saved me."

It is typical of this engaging young man that he should look on rugby as the game that got him out of that mess, not the game that got him into it. And he beams as he recalls being visited in the French hospital by the Perpignan president and the France-based Scotland player Nathan Hines. "That shows you the kind of guys you get in rugby," he says.

To recuperate, he went home to his parents' farm near Llandrindod Wells. "I wanted to take myself out of the rugby environment, so I went back to mid-Wales and tried to help the old man feed the sheep and that. I didn't do a lot of manual labour, mainly sat in the tractor, but it took my mind off it. And gradually I was able to start working my lower body."

He was out of the game for almost a year, and his first match back, the following September, was a pre-season friendly for the Dragons against Cross Keys. "I didn't think I was hesitant about making tackles, but people said I was," he recalls. "It also took a while to get my fitness back, but the following year I was called up for the autumn internationals."

It was the realisation of a dream to play for Wales, and yet his boyhood hero, he says, not even dropping his voice in the bowels of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, had been the England flanker Richard Hill. "I liked the way he was, the way other members of the team spoke about him. He never got the glory, but he was such a vital cog. I admired that. If I model myself on one player, it's definitely Richard Hill. I'd love to find the same qualities he had."

In the meantime, he is taking some valuable qualities of his own to a World Cup campaign that could hardly present a tougher pool stage, starting on 11 September against South Africa. "I've never played South Africa before," says Lydiate, "but there's nowhere better to do it than the World Cup, so if I'm picked, that will be awesome. We know they'll be very physical, so the forwards' job is to nullify that and hope the backs bring up something special. I know Shane [Williams] and George North will turn it on when the time comes, if we can get the ball to them."

He is careful to add the proviso, "if I'm picked", but there seems little chance of him being left out. In the warm-up matches – including the 19-9 defeat of England – Lydiate, Toby Faletau and new captain Sam Warburton meshed so impressively in the back row that coach Warren Gatland has gone and omitted the old warhorse Martyn Williams from the squad. "I was very surprised by that," Lydiate admits. "To leave Martyn out shows the calibre of players we have, but it's still disappointing because he's a legend on and off the pitch. I've really got to know Martyn this summer and he took me under his wing a little bit. He's played against everyone, so we've talked quite a bit about defence, about the best way to tackle different guys. But I'm not giving any examples. I wouldn't want to give away any trade secrets."

Gatland is certainly putting his faith in youth, with Lydiate among six forwards under the age of 24. "He's really good with us younger boys, he just encourages us to express ourselves," says Lydiate of the coach, who has also placed his trust in Andy Powell, being taken as potential cover for Lydiate and Warburton, but presumably not as a potential driver should anyone fancy taking a golf buggy for a whirl down a Kiwi highway. Is the incident-prone Powell a reformed character? "Well, he's definitely a character. Our training days have been hard, and he's the one guy who'll say something not really meaning to, to crack up the whole squad. He's a good guy to have around." The spirit in the squad, he adds, is excellent. "The boys are really excited, and we're heading out there full of confidence."

He has been to New Zealand once before, on a family holiday planned to coincide with his brother playing rugby out there for a British colleges team. Their father is originally a Salford man, a lifelong Manchester United fan who never had much interest in the oval-ball game until both sons took to it with such relish, so he's had to embrace it. And has Lydiate returned the compliment, adopting United as his football team? "I don't follow it, to be honest. I've just always loved rugby. If I hadn't made it I'd still be playing for my local club, because I enjoy the game so much."