Newcastle Falcons prop Taione Vea has been forced to retire from rugby as a result of the spinal injury he suffered in the Aviva Premiership opener against Sale Sharks on September 2.
The 27-year-old made 22 competitive appearances for the club after joining from London Welsh in the summer of 2015, and has been capped six times by Tonga.
Announcing the news, Vea said: “I took a bad knock in the game against Sale and spent a few nights in hospital, and when I had my scan results unfortunately things didn’t come back too well. I had quite a bit of swelling in the spinal cord, around some really important areas of the neck, and it is just one of those things.
“I was left paralysed for five or six minutes on the field, where I couldn’t feel my whole body. That is enough for anybody in a lifetime, and the risk of that happening again if I was to return to playing is quite high. It is obviously not the way I wanted to go. At the age I am and the way I felt I was playing, I was planning on a fair few more years. But having spoken to medical professionals and specialists I have had to just accept the fact there is more to life than playing the game I love.”
Newcastle Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards said: “Tai is an enormously talented and popular member or our squad, and it is devastating to hear the news that he will not be able to carry on playing.
“He was in fantastic form at the time of his injury, he has remained strong throughout what is obviously a very difficult period and he will continue to receive the full support of everybody associated with the club. It goes without saying we wish him all the best for the next chapter of his life. He has good people around him, he will always be welcome back at Kingston Park and it is just an incredible shame he has been forced to retire in these circumstances.”
Explaining the events which have led to his decision, Vea said: “What actually happened was that I passed the ball, relaxed, felt the hit, and even though I didn’t know who or how, I knew I’d been hit from behind. As I was falling to ground I could see myself falling. I was perfectly conscious, I just felt a bit of a sting, but as I was falling I couldn’t feel anything or control anything. I couldn’t brace to stop myself falling, my face hit the ground and as I was lying there I couldn’t move or feel anything.
“Our head physio Simon Pope was asking me what was going on, I said I couldn’t feel anything, I couldn’t move and that my arms and legs were gone. The medical staff turned me over, and the scariest part was after I asked someone to grab my arms. I was getting more and more agitated saying ‘someone please grab my arms’ but as I looked up I saw our head of athletic performance Kevin McShane squeezing my hand. I couldn’t feel a thing. Eventually after five minutes I started to get a little bit of feeling in my toes, then my feet, but I knew it was serious.
“I prayed and I believed I was going to recover. At no point did I doubt that. I prayed some more, and it wasn’t until I ended up in the ambulance that I got full feeling back in my arms and everywhere. Within a couple of days I was out of hospital, walking about OK, and I thought I was through the worst of it. Everything felt fine, my movement was fine and it just felt like a matter of time before I was back playing. It had been such a good pre-season for me, the games had gone well and personally I was confident with how it was looking.
“Then we went into the six-week scan, and although going into the scan I was fully aware of all the potential outcomes, I felt really positive about it. Worst case scenario I thought I might need an operation and that I might be out for a little while. Unfortunately that’s just not the way it panned out. So here I am, 27 years old.”
The former Wasps and North Harbour prop added: “I feel like there is more to do. There is a lot more to life and you have to think about the wider picture. You keep telling yourself there is a way around it and that other players come back from big neck injuries. In terms of everyday life I will be fine, but I won’t be hitting any rucks or scrum machines. I can’t put my body in further jeopardy, and you have to weigh it up. I want to have kids and I am planning to get married to my partner, Larni.
“The risk of carrying on playing is a big one, and I can’t afford to take it. We are not too sure yet what is going to happen now. I think we are just going to look to spend a bit of time together, travel a bit and then decide what’s happening longer term.
“The support from the Falcons has been immense throughout this whole ordeal. I have spent a lot of time talking to our director of rugby Dean Richards, our head physio Simon Pope has been unreal and I would also like to thank the Rugby Players’ Association for all their help during my time in the UK. Our medical staff at Newcastle have been outstanding and the people at the club have been there for me every step of the way. My partner has been strong for both of us, and at times like these you just need to embrace everything you get from friends, team-mates, family and anyone who wishes you well. I don’t want to hide away from it all. For me, the easiest way is to face head-on the fact that this has happened, and move on.
“The support of the Falcons’ fans has also been huge for me. When I was lying in my hospital bed on the night of the injury my partner Larni was reading out all of the tweets and messages that were coming in from Falcons supporters. That was really uplifting and it made me feel positive that people cared so much about my wellbeing. It made me want to come back even more, and even after this latest news it has still got me through. I am able to do everything in terms of leading a normal everyday life, and with that sort of injury if I had been paralysed for much longer we would be talking about a major life-changing experience.”
Taking his time before deciding on his next move, Vea said: “I have been a rugby player pretty much all the way through. I have had jobs here and there. I worked in a sports retail store, I have done bits of fitness instructing and coaching, but right now I am not too sure exactly what I’ll do. In a way it’s a fresh start.
“Eventually this was always going to happen – finishing with playing. I had hoped it would be in five or six years’ time rather than aged 27, and on my own terms. It is more to take on, happening so soon, but we will take the time now to go home, spend time with our families and experience a bit of life before we settle down. Larni has got a degree and always manages to find a good job, and for me it is into the real world I go. That’s just the way it is.
“What I will never forget though is the debt I owe to everyone who has believed in me and supported me throughout – from school level to becoming a professional and helping me achieve my dream of playing at the top level for my country. I have been truly blessed and am grateful to have made so many fantastic memories and lifelong friends along the way.
“Finally, thank you to the people of North East England. As tough as it has been to overcome the weather and the Geordie language we have thoroughly enjoyed our time here in Newcastle! It is sad to be finishing up but I am thankful for everything and excited for the next chapter in my life.”