We often live for the ‘here and now’ in sport. With the Six Nations in full swing, and the picture for top level club rugby next year hazy at best, the rugby world has plenty to chew and mull over.
As a player who has played at Championship and National League level for a number of years, I often overhear and am indeed involved in rugby-themed conversation at the bar post-game. Whether it’s to do with how the national team is fairing, who is going to be relegated or who is spending what on firing their team to glory, it’s quite often about the bigger picture.
Having been fortunate enough to have had an excellent career in a sport that I love, I of course will always encourage debate and discussion about rugby, by the rugby fraternity. Having said that, there is a deeper discussion to be had about our sport and there are topics that are worthy of a place at the ‘conversation top table’, if you like. Let me explain.
When I first joined Esher as a senior player back in 2007, I was immediately made to feel incredibly welcome by the boys already at the club. Rugby is special in the sense that the camaraderie it promotes is unique amongst the hundreds of sporting disciplines. Every Saturday is controlled warfare – your teammates are your brothers-in-arms, and as much as you’d do anything for them, you know they’d do the same for you.
As I briefly touched on above, I’m grateful to have played in some great teams and met some great people in rugby, but one name that particularly stands out is Paul Barker. A hulking, 6ft7 South African, Paul was an outstanding second-row forward. Hard working, a master of the lineout and with hands like a back three player. Never afraid to say what needed to be in times of strife, Paul was an Esher stalwart for over seven years and as good as he was on the field, he was always the life and soul in the bar post-game.
Rugby is renowned for its characters – you know of the sort I refer to, slightly wacky, a little bizarre, and often eccentric – and Paul certainly had his moments. As I got to know him over the years, our friendship grew and through our mutual love of beer, rugby and women (not always in that order!) we shared endless good moments.
Paul left Esher in the summer of 2012, and retired a year later. However, whilst playing in a friendly game for Effingham & Leatherhead, he broke his leg severely, which required major surgery. Responding positively in the initial weeks and months post-operation, circumstances eventually took Paul back into hospital, after pains in his damaged leg. Thinking that the pins might have become infected, it should have been a case of further treatment but what came next was a bolt out of the blue.
Tests revealed that Paul was actually suffering from a very rare form of cancer, fibrosarcoma, which had taken the form of a cyst in his leg. The break had occurred because the cyst had weakened his bone structure, causing the cyst to burst and the cancer to spread.
Despite numerous consultations, tests and very frank conversations, Paul had to have his leg amputated recently in order to stop the cancer spreading and putting his life at risk. For someone who has played top-level sport in all his adult years, it was a heart-breaking period in his and his family’s life.
I visited Paul after the operation that has changed his life so drastically, but yet he remains as bright as ever. Perhaps it’s his sporting background that makes him see this as another challenge he must overcome, another battle, just as the ones he has faced so often over 80 minutes. To say it humbled me would be an understatement.
I urge the rugby community to sit up and talk about Paul, his story and how we can make a difference. Rugby is a wonderful sport that serves up truly outstanding theatre, but there is more to it than the 15 guys who put on an England jersey every early spring and autumn, or the Heineken Cup. Scratch the surface, and there are hundreds of men and women who deserve our attention for their contribution to our game.
It’s of no surprise that all of the club’s Paul served during his career are doing their bit to support him and his loved ones over what will be a tough few months ahead, and I’m delighted to be leading on that front on behalf of Esher.
There are many events planned in the very near future in support of Paul, and I hope you join me and all those involved in helping one of our own. If you can’t help physically or financially, that’s not a problem – talking about the story you’ve just read and raising awareness is something that is potentially even more powerful. If you can join us in June, we’d not only welcome you with open arms, but make sure your experience is one you’ll never forget.
Here’s to Paul – let’s make it known an entire sport is in his corner.
Support Paul by getting involved with www.surreyclassicbikeride.co.uk
To buy tickets to the Murder Ball evening which is on Thursday April 24th, please click here. This is a black tie dinner dance with special guests, including Chris Robshaw, David Weir, Jo Marler, Matt Hampson and special guest Laura Wright. The MC for the night will be John Inverdale.
More details will follow.