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Captain Courageous: young rugby star bounces back

Flagstaff Team

Special bond… Jackson and father Dean Rice training last week at the North Shore Rugby club gym

Four years ago, promising rugby player Jackson Rice’s life had hit rock bottom. In hospital after multiple operations due to a life-threatening bout of septicaemia, he was told walking would be hard, running impossible and returning to the football field out of the question.

But after a hip operation with the help of former tennis number-one Andy Murray’s surgeon and with a dedicated approach to rehab, he is back playing rugby again, as halfback and captain for the North Shore under-21s.

He even came on as a substitute for the club’s premiers side during its match against Takapuna last month.

In 2018, Jackson had seemed set for a stellar rugby career: he was co-captain of the Takapuna Grammar School (TGS) first XV, which was poised for a championship winning run, had made North Harbour age-group squads and was included in a Blues under-18 camp. The camp was where disaster struck.

It’s thought he picked up an infection during training on an ‘astroturf’ field at Auckland Grammar.

“I started to get extreme pain in my hip… it was like breaking a bone, but was there 24/7.” Numerous trips to the hospital couldn’t isolate the source of the pain. In three weeks, Jackson’s weight dropped from 78kg to 42kg. “The pain was excruciating and I was sleeping about an hour a day,” he recalls.

“I was having boiling hot baths so I could faint and go to sleep.”

When he was finally admitted to hospital, Jackson felt close to death. He spent around two and a half weeks in a medical coma as he underwent numerous blood transfusions to cleanse his system.

He had around a dozen surgeries, as doctors cut away infected cartilage from around his hip and where the infection had spread to his fingers.

His dad Dean, a fitness trainer, stayed with him. “Dad didn’t want to leave the hospital,” says Jackson. “He started sleeping in a chair but they ended up bringing a bed in for him.”

Jackson was also thankful for the support of the wider rugby community. Former All Black Mils Muliaina, who was his coach at the Blues camp, visited, as did the North Harbour ITM cup team, along with “my first fifteen boys”.

Blues players Rieko Ioane, Ofa Tuungafasi and James Parsons clubbed together to send a video.

But then came the “hard news”.

“I was told I would never be able to play rugby again; never be able to walk properly again.

“It was shattering for me because I had trained with my dad my whole life to be a high-performance sports person, a top rugby player.”

He turned to his father, who said “you can either accept what they say or we can start training and rehab and go from there”.

Jackson chose the long fight to get back what he had.

“A lot of times I almost did give up. It was pretty hard when you can’t walk and run to believe you can get back (to full fitness).”

Especially when his mates were living full lives. “Mentally I was in quite a bad state at the time.”

The TGS team had built for years to make the North Harbour secondary school championship final that season.

Jackson was at North Harbour stadium in a wheelchair on the sideline and was photographed with the team holding the cup after it drew with Westlake 12-12 to share the championship.

Jackson watched from a wheel-chair when TGS drew with Westlake in the North Harbour secondary school final in 2018

“It was pretty hard to watch,” he says four years later.

He also had to face the disappointment of having his North Harbour and Blues rugby hopes taken from him by his illness.

“I also got pretty sick of having all the sympathy too to be honest.”

After months of rehab and steady weight gain, Jackson began to walk again, but with a pronounced lean.

Then came huge piece of luck. Melbourne surgeon John O’Donnell, who had previously operated on former world tennis number one Andy Murray, heard of Jackson’s case and felt he was a candidate for experimental hip surgery.

“He said if it went really well I would be able to play rugby again.”

The Christmas 2019 operation was a success. In 2020, Jackson was learning to walk and run again.

“Which felt weird, as I had not run for a few years,” he says. “Everything was a bit strange – jogging, then running and learning how to tackle and pass the ball, which is pretty important as a halfback.”

In the Covid-impacted 2021 season, he played a few games for Shore’s under-21s.

Now playing a full season in 2022 stretching and “prehab” remains vital. Jackson, who works as a builder’s apprentice with Trueline Construction, spends around one-and-a-half to two hours per day in the North Shore Rugby club gym run by Dean.

“I need to keep my hips loose.”

At the start of this year, Jackson, now 20, was ready to make his comeback.

He has played all of the under-21s games as captain. Then, he got a surprise call up for the premiers side in the fiercely contested derby against Takapuna.

“I was told on the morning of the game,” says Jackson.

He played 65 minutes for the under-21s, then raced off to change into the premiers strip before coming on late in the game as a replacement.

“It was a home game with a huge crowd, so it was pretty exciting and my family were all there,” he says.

“I was the smallest guy on the field, but I’m back to 79kgs which is a good weight for me.” He’s feeling good about his form and getting plenty of positive feedback from coaches.

And he retains his rugby dreams to play overseas and also move south to have a crack at representative rugby.

“I’ve always wanted to play for Otago and the Highlanders.”

This year though is “just going out and enjoying myself”, he says. “I was told not so long ago that I couldn’t play at all.

Proud moment… Jackson with his parents Dean and Jackie and brother Hunter after the North Shore premiers match with Takapuna

“Now I’m playing in the under-21s with my mates and younger brother Hunter – he’s number 10 and I’m number 9.”

Covid has meant Jackson hasn’t lost as much opportunity for development as he might have. While he was in rehab, many other sports careers were put on hold due to the pandemic. “I kind of caught up – it was a perfect scenario for me.”

He has massive scars on his upper legs and glutes, a titanium hip pinned in place and a permanently bent middle finger on his left hand as reminders of his illness.

But he can look ahead to the rest of the season and beyond with optimism.

His long hours in the gym are paying off.

“My speed is back and my strength is through the roof.”

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