WORCESTER’S Wizard of Oz Chris Latham has spoken for the first time about the spinal injury that caused him to lose feeling in his arms and legs.
The former Australia international revealed how fear gripped him as he lay on the Sixways pitch, unable to move after what he describes as a ‘freak accident’.
The incident occurred two weeks ago, 15 minutes into Warriors’ 37-20 defeat to Sale as the legendary full back counter-attacked across halfway. What looked like a routine tackle nearly turned to disaster as Latham sustained a blow that sent a shock-wave right down his spinal cord. Incredibly the 33-year-old recovered in time to face Bath yesterday but, at the time, that seemed a faint hope.
After a long delay to the match, Latham needed a stretcher and an oxygen mask to leave the field and there were fears he had sustained a serious injury.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen and Latham says that within 30 minutes of the collision, he knew he would be alright. But memories of their star player lying paralysed will live with Worcester supporters for years to come.
It is also something Latham will never forget. “I was scared, I had never had that feeling before,” Latham confessed.
“In the 11 or 12 years I have been playing professional rugby, it was only my third head knock and the second really serious one but I had never had a sensation like that before. After a couple of minutes, I felt sufficiently conscious to know that I could not properly feel my arms and legs, other than a slight tingle.
“Your initial thoughts are of the worst, I was lucky that I had a very good medical team there and Brian (Downey, Warriors’ director of sports medicine) reassured me of things and made me feel a lot more comfortable. It was a freak accident. I was driving into a tackle and drove my head into an opponent’s hip. They told me it sent a shock down my spine which causes a loss of feeling.”
Mercifully, things picked up as Latham was taken to the changing rooms, although he still felt groggy for several days afterwards, not helped by the fact that he suffered laryngitis in the days following the incident.
“By the time I started to get off the pitch I started to get more feeling and the longer I was in the shed, things continued to get better,” Latham continued.
“Anyone who has ever been on one of those stretchers knows they are not very comfortable and, before long, you start feeling aches and pains that probably aren’t there. Because of your state, things start going through your head about them, too.”
Within seven days, Latham was back running again and he returned to training last week in time to face a team that, until yesterday, director of rugby Mike Ruddock had not beaten in his time at Sixways.
Latham will continue his comeback at Leicester on Saturday and will be seeking to avenge the 19-17 reverse Tigers inflicted earlier this season. Latham believes that game, conceded to a late try and conversion from Julien Dupuy, has been typical of Warriors’ whole season.
It has been a frustrating one for the Narrabri-born superstar who is used to playing in winning teams, rather than ones whose main characteristic is inconsistency.
“It’s about our maturity as a team,” he said. “It’s being able to keep that focus for a full 80 minutes. That starts at training and being able to rock up ready to go and do things as well the last time as the first. The successful teams I have played in have been able to maintain that concentration. It’s not a case of pointing fingers at individuals or positions, it’s a 22-man issue, we all have to be mentally right.”
They will need to be that and more at Welford Road on Saturday and although the hosts will be depleted by international call-ups while Worcester will be relatively undisrupted, Latham does not take much solace from that.
“They have a proud tradition – especially at home, so they are going to be extremely difficult,” he said. “Whilst they may have lost some experienced guys to England, on the reverse of that they have young guys who train with those players, week in week out.
“When guys like that get an opportunity they tend to take it with both hands. Games against that sort of opposition tend to be harder because the players that come in are so committed.”
On the plus side, Worcester expect to have Matthew Jones back in for a first appearance in nearly three months after the Welshman sustained a foot injury.
He will challenge new signing Willie Walker,left, for the No 10 shirt after the ex-New Zealand Maori joined on loan from Gloucester until the end of the season.
“I have played against Willie a lot in what was the Super 12,” Latham said. “He’s a fantastic player and a gifted athlete.
“He’ll bring a great amount of skill to the squad and, in the sessions he has had with us so far, you can see that he has already fitted in nicely.”