Rob Horne has faced a few challenges over the past 15 months but he is now just a few weeks away from what will be his toughest assignment yet: trekking the Kokoda Trail.
The former Waratahs and Wallabies back’s career came to a sudden halt while playing for English club Northampton in April last year, when he was injured in a tackle just moments after kick-off in the Saints’ clash with Leicester.
In a horror stroke of luck, Horne was left paralysed in his right arm, the injury effectively ending his career at the moment of impact and leaving him to contemplate “life after rugby” much sooner than what he’d originally planned.
But he holds no bitterness towards an incident that has left him, and his young family, with some challenges and he will now trek the famous World War II trail to help raise awareness and funding for The Cauliflower Club.
“Kokoda’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and it’s always been something I’ve felt connected to in a way,” Horne said in an exclusive interview with ESPN.
“My dad served in Vietnam, so I guess throughout ANZAC Days and those bigger [military] occasions, you’re very conscious of the significance that it plays for Australians. But it was always something that I wanted to do and the opportunity came about through a mate of mine that I played with many years ago, Al Manning – he runs a local PNG business that does Kokoda treks and some deep-sea fishing expeditions, and he wanted to get me up there anyway. And then I thought if I’m going to go up there, let’s do it for a good cause.”
While Australian rugby continues to be dragged through the mire that is the Israel Folau saga, The Cauliflower Club and Horne’s Kokoda trek are two causes worthy of universal support.
“The Cauliflower Club is a charity with a skew to sporting-related injuries and accidents, particularly rugby – we try to raise funds for spinal injuries that would then be used for equipment, generally,” Horne explained. “Our thinking is that with equipment that can help with different levels of paralysis and spinal injuries, that it can be used by more than one person; it’s accessible to more than one person and we think that if we can give something that’s long-lasting and can be shared, that [serves] that shared-experience part, which is powerful.
“We recently donated some modified kayaks, some sea-kayaks, to Sargood, which is a resort for those people with spinal injuries on [Sydney’s] Northern Beaches. It’s just an outstanding facility and all the reports back from that are that those sea-kayaks are just one of the big winners up there because everyone likes to get out on the ocean and, because it’s modified, it offers that true independence.”
While he in no way sees his injury as anything akin to those for whom The Cauliflower Club’s work is so important, Horne says his own small personal insight made the decision to get involved relatively simple.
“I came on-board not that long ago, I’m a bit of newbie, but we’ve had some new inclusions … [including] Alicia Quirk, Australian Sevens Olympic gold medallist. But it was originally founded by [former Wallabies] Peter Fitzsimons and Nick Farr-Jones; Al Baxter’s involved; Dean Mumm … I was asked to be involved and I suppose dipping my toe in the world of these kind of injuries, spinal injuries, through my own lived experience, it was pretty easy to hop on board.”
Elsewhere, the 2014 Super Rugby winner has plenty on his plate. A move home to Australia with two kids under four, a new job and a mentoring role with the Australia men’s sevens squad, all to go with his work with The Cauliflower Club, means Horne is “busier than ever before” and well and truly embracing the next phase of life.
He’s excited by what lies ahead with the men’s sevens squad, an Oceania Olympic qualifier later this year when Australia will confront a vastly-improved Samoa squad, and he can’t wait to see many of his former Wallabies teammates pull on the gold jersey with the start of the Rugby Championship and then, of course, the World Cup.
Having been a part of the Wallabies squad that surprised everyone in reaching the final four years ago, Horne is optimistic a similar storyline can play out in a few months’ time. And he is adamant coach Michael Cheika, who was spared the axe last year despite a 4-9 season, has it within himself to once again rally a group of players many have already written off.
“It was a special time; in the end, we didn’t win, which is what you set out to do but in saying that, the whole campaign was special and you could feel that,” Horne said of the 2015 tournament. “I don’t know whether that was the chicken or the egg – the feeling caused the winning or the winning caused the feeling, but what I do know was that we had a well-balanced squad, we had great leadership and we had a tough pool. So we knew we had to be on from the start and we were playing England in England; we had to perform.
“He [Cheika] is a fantastic coach; technically, tactically he’s very smart, and he knows how to get the most out of his players, that’s one of his strong points, he knows how to get certain players going. But he also knows how to build sides; he knows how to set to complimentary skill-sets next to each other to create balanced teams, so he’s certainly equipped to do it all again. He’s certainly the right man for the job.”
Horne will take off on his Kokoda Trek just a few days before the Wallabies’ second Rugby Championship clash, against Argentina, in Brisbane. Having gone “a bit too hard” early on in his training, the 29-year-old Sydneysider has scaled things back a bit but he is under no illusion as to the challenge that lies ahead.
“We’re heading off the 26th of July, a group of six – it’s roughly 100km through the Papua New Guinea highlands and the plan is to really rip in and go for six days; you can go for a six, 8, 10, 12-day option but we’re going to do our best to rip in and go from there,” he said.
“Anyone you speak to, they say it stays with you for life because it is so challenging and it is so draining. You’re confronting so many different physical things and then you experience some of the stories and some of the anecdotes of what our diggers did up there; it could only be inspiring. I can only imagine when they [the Australian soldiers] made first contact up there and just the emotions, and how you would be confronted of the emotional enormity of it all. I’ve chatted to people and they say it really touches the soul.”
Horne is ready for everything the trail can throw at him, and knows there will be times when the paralysis in his right arm will make the trek more difficult for himself than the other members of his party. But he will embrace those moments and memories, and that remains his key message for those still playing professional rugby.
“My take on it is to be present and be in the moment,” Horne told ESPN. “Live each day because you’re creating memories; as an athlete you only get that small time to create those memories and you want to create as many as you can. They’re the stories that you get to look back on with your kids, or share with your mates or work colleagues. So I think be present, enjoy wearing that jersey and never wish time away.”
Click here to learn more about The Cauliflower Club.