In an Aviva Premiership season that has seen a record number of retirements, it’s sad that today a friend of mine has joined the list of players being forced to quit the game early due to injury.
Joe Ansbro today announced his retirement from rugby after suffering a serious neck injury in a pre-season fixture against Munster last August. I was with Joe on the pitch when it happened in the first half at Musgrave Park. He stopped a Munster player in trademark fashion, chopping him down with a tackle. It was the sort of contact I have seen hundreds of times (and seen Joe make on numerous occasions) and the game continued as normal. A few moments went by before the referee stopped play so that Joe could get treatment. You always hope for the best in these situations, but after watching both the Munster and London Irish physios assess Joe and then call for a stretcher, the full extent of what had happened started to materialise. Play stopped for nearly ten minutes and when it was confirmed later that evening that Joe would staying behind in hospital in Ireland for further scans and treatment, we knew something serious might have happened.
Over the last nine months Joe has stayed positive, which is to his immense credit. I missed seven months of the 2009/2010 season. Knowing you are going to be out of action for a long period tests you mentally and physically. It is torture. But anytime Joe was at the club, particularly in the early stages when his neck was mobilised by a halo brace, he still had a smile on his face and was making jokes as if nothing happened.
He was always popular and anyone who knows him will have witnessed his determination to get back to full fitness. Many times I remember being midway through a training session when I would look up to see a lone figure doing laps on one of the other pitches – it wasn’t a random visitor aimlessly wandering the Sunbury training grounds but actually Joe, just working hard and getting stuck into his rehabilitation schedule.
He will not have taken the decision to retire lightly. I know he would have loved to play more games for London Irish and Scotland, but such is the nature of the sport we play.
At 27, he still has his whole life ahead of him and will no doubt go on to have great success on his next career pathway. I know Joe has been in touch with our Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) throughout this time and situations like this emphasise the importance of provisions and assistance being available for the growing number of players being forced to retire due to injury or illness. Restart, the rugby players’ charity, is instrumental in this and I know they will be helping Joe so that he has everything he needs to kick start his next adventure. Cambridge educated, he’s always claimed that he’s the smartest at the club (especially smarter that Jamie Gibson, his Oxford rival at the club who we often tested against each other to see who knew more) but Joe has always been level-headed and while saddened by being forced to retire, I’m sure exciting times await him in the future. Having played for Northampton Saints, London Irish and represented Scotland 11 times, including the Rugby World Cup in 2011, Joe ‘M’bu’ has been a credit to rugby and will be missed by all at London Irish and in the rugby community.