Jolted by a serious neck injury, former Hong Kong skipper Ed Rolston finds life after rugby

The 26-year-old says he doesn’t want the sport to define him as his career is cut abruptly short

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 10:08pm

Ed Rolston was never your ordinary rugby player and he certainly isn’t your ordinary ex-player either.

The 26-year-old, who captained Hong Kong as recently as November, had his career cut abruptly short earlier this year, with a deteriorating neck injury forcing him out of the game.

He certainly didn’t expect his exit to be so sudden – “I thought it would be ‘you’ve got six months’ or ‘you’ve got a year’” – but he is more than ready to tackle life after rugby.

With a drama degree and two years working as an actor and writer in London under his belt, the affable Rolston has plenty of options.

On top of that, he and long-time Hong Kong teammate Matt Lamming, along with chef Charlie Morrice, have just opened Wan Chai bar Three Blind Mice, something they planned to juggle with their rugby commitments.

“We didn’t take rugby with a pinch of salt, but we always knew a day would come when we couldn’t play anymore,” Rolston said.

“It is something we decided we were going to do while we were both in contracts and we were going to make it work while we were playing.

“There has been a bit of serendipity there in that the injury, as devastating as it was, came at an exciting time.

“It has taken my mind off not being able to play rugby and I’ve slipped seamlessly into running a bar and restaurant.”

That’s not to suggest the news that his career was over didn’t cut Rolston to the bone and he says the “realisation that I’m never going to wear a pair of rugby boots again was gutting”.

After finding out some years ago the pain he was experiencing intermittently in his right arm and fingers was caused by a prolapsed C5-C6 disc, Rolston says it degraded to the point where the vertebrae were close to touching.

“It got to the point that I couldn’t even get through 10 minutes of a match,” Rolston said. “The option I was given was a spinal vertebral fusion, where they drill two vertebrae together to offer stability.

“It is an extremely invasive surgery. They go through the front of your neck, and the doctor told me out of the 400 surgeries he has done, between six and eight of the people have been paralysed from the neck down. Not one person I have spoken to has tried to persuade me to get the surgery.”

First-time Hong Kong captain Ed Rolston ready to write his own script after rugby intermission

Having spent two years at English Premiership club Leicester and playing in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, as well as representing Hong Kong and club side Societe Generale Valley, rugby has been Rolston’s life for most of the past decade.

How professional sportspeople cope with life out of the game was brought into the spotlight in February after former Wallaby Dan Vickerman took his own life at the age of 37.

While Rolston admits his situation is not to the scale of someone like Vickerman, he understands the challenges ahead.

“I have to say there is an element [in Vickerman’s situation] that I can relate to in the sense that rugby gives you an identity as a person,” Rolston said. “You always have that at the foreground of everything you do – ‘oh, that’s that rugby player’.

“I don’t think you can ever move on from it as a rugby player, you learn so much and it has given me so much. It has been everything in my life since I was about 11 years old.”

Not surprisingly, Rolston is determined not to be “defined my whole life as a rugby player” and says he has long been thinking about what he would do next, with the Three Blind Mice idea in the pipeline for some time.

Former Wallaby forward Dan Vickerman dies suddenly at 37

“The Hong Kong Rugby Union try to persuade players to think about life after rugby and they are very positive if you have another thing,” Rolston said.

It would be a safe bet to suggest that Rolston would never be one to sit around twiddling his thumbs.

Three Blind Mice – named after three guys “with not much restaurant experience having a good go” – is commanding his full attention, but he says his love for drama will only be on the backburner for so long.

“I just want to make it a really cool spot where people feel they can come in and have a nice beer and not be worried they are going to be absolutely done by the price,” he said.

“The film industry, movies, acting, writing, it’s still a huge part of my life. I have written a full-feature screenplay with another rugby player over here [Mark Agnew] so who knows what will happen down the track.”

As for the game, Rolston is enjoying taking a step back and says he’ll always be involved in one way or another.

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“Valley has always been close to my heart. It was the club I started playing at when I was a kid, and I’d love to do as much as I can to stay involved,” he said.

“With the Hong Kong stuff, if there is anything they want me to do I’m very happy to be involved.

“I’m a huge advocate for the game, I think it does a lot for people on and off the field so if I can encourage people to play the sport that is how I will stay involved.”