Taione Vea: Newcastle Falcons prop on coping with enforced retirement

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Taione Vea: Retirement news stunned Newcastle Falcons prop

It hurt, the tackle that left Newcastle Falcons front-rower Taione Vea sprawled on the synthetic turf at Kingston Park in their first Premiership game of the season.

He was dazed and confused, but had taken those bruising contacts before - they were all part of the job for the 20-stone prop.

This time, however, it was not a routine bump or knock, the 27-year-old had suffered a life-changing spinal injury and could not move.

It was not until a specialist later confirmed his fate that it truly sank in.

"He said 'You pretty much have to stop'," Vea told BBC Look North.

"'It's such a high risk of re-injuring, we can't guarantee you would come back.' I was pretty blown away."

Life-changing moment

Vea, who moved to Falcons for the 2015-16 season, was making only his 22nd appearance for Dean Richards' side and was at peak fitness after a full summer of preparation.

The second half was just 10 minutes old against Sale when disaster struck, bringing his professional career to an end.

"I was falling toward the ground, trying to brace myself, do something, but that will wasn't working and I landed pretty much face down on the deck," Vea recalled.

"I was trying to breathe, waiting for something to happen, I could hear everyone talking and telling me to be calm, but I just couldn't do anything, I was quite shocked.

"I closed my eyes for a couple of seconds, I prayed a little. The biggest thing was I was asking someone to squeeze my arms and hands, I couldn't feel it, but I looked and could see them being squeezed.

"I went quiet, didn't know what to do and that was probably the toughest part."

Hard to take

Taione Vea
Taione Vea was withdrawn on a stretcher after 50 minutes of Falcons' first game of the 2016-17 season

The scars of the week-to-week game never quite subside, and players can take for granted the aches and pains after matches.

It was the same for Vea, but his optimism was quickly checked as his condition deteriorated.

"After that game, I asked if we'd won and I said I felt good," he added.

"My body was sore and there was some stinging, but I thought it was just from the game and everything was coming back.

"I thought I was fine and it was a stringer I didn't think anything of it, the sort of thing that happens. Eventually, the pain just came on and it got worse and worse."

Loss to the game

Having been a player for 16 years before his switch to the coaching ranks, Falcons director of rugby Richards knows all about the rigours of the rugby field.

The England back-rower was the man who brought Vea to the North East, and had earmarked him as a key figure in the Falcons plans.

"It was terrible news," Richards said. "He's someone who came to the club with potential of being one of the best players in the Premiership, sadly it's been taken away from him.

"He's a lovely guy, he's thrown his lot into the club, everyone gets on very well and it's devastating. I'm glad the club has supported him."

Coping with the future

Bill Tupou
Wakefield centre Bill Tupou's partner is the sister of Vea's partner, and the quartet socialise regularly

From a 12-year-old rugby-mad Auckland boy playing for the first time with a friend's team to Tonga international honours and playing in the Premiership, Vea's journey had been a rewarding one before this recent setback.

With friends such as Bill Tupou and Ukuma Ta'ai playing rugby league in England, other former colleagues throughout the Premiership and the comradeship of his Falcons team-mates, there is a support network.

As for the future, there are plans to stay in the UK over Christmas and then explore Europe before returning to the southern hemisphere to see family.

"It's a tough one to take, knowing a couple of months ago I was out there," Vea said.

"I miss it already, knowing there's no longer a future for me in the game in terms of playing.

"I'm hanging around here a bit to do a bit of training, I need to get my body back in motion and the club have been great with that.

"I'm positive I can still be around the boys, I'm happy for them and pleased I got to know them."