Almost every rugby player struggles with a niggly injury at some point in his or her career and former Brumbies and Waratahs flanker Jone Tawake was no different.
The solution to his problem however was a little more extreme than most.
Tawake began his playing career with Sydney University after finishing school in Orange and made his Super Rugby debut with the Waratahs in 2002. The Fijian born flanker was in line for a spot in the Wallabies 2003 World Cup squad but a shoulder injury that required surgery ended any hope of that.
A year later, Tawake headed south and had immediate success, winning a Super Rugby title with the Brumbies in 2004.
“After a little while in Canberra, I felt like I was playing some good rugby again and I wanted to get into the Australian squad for the 2007 World Cup after missing out in 2003,” he told Rugby News.
In career best form, things were looking good for Tawake until he suffered a fairly minor injury in 2006.
“We were playing against the Blues in Auckland in 2006 and I tried to contest a kickoff. The Blues lock jumped as well and I got my finger caught in his jersey as I tried to tackle him and my finger dislocated,” he recalled.
“The doctor put it back in and I played the rest of the match but after a few weeks, it just wasn’t getting better. The doctor sent me to get a scan and then to see a surgeon and they told me I needed an operation or my finger would keep popping out.”
Initially, the surgeon attempted to reset the finger with pins but that only complicated the injury.
“They tried to fix it by putting a pin in for eight weeks but some bacteria got in and ate away at the joints, which made it a lot worse,” he said.
“They were talking about trying to infuse my finger which would have meant I didn’t have a joint but I couldn’t imagine trying to catch a ball like that.”
Tawake was given an ultimatum. Retire as a 24-year old or amputate his finger and continue his rugby career.
“It might sound crazy to some people, but at the time it was a really easy decision. I wanted to support my family through rugby so getting it amputated was the only option really,” he said.
“I asked the surgeon if I could keep the finger but he said it was a biohazard. I wanted to put in on a chain and keep it with me. I said ‘C’mon Doc, it’s my finger.’”
Tawake’s teammates were understandably shocked by the decision.
“I never actually told any of them and it all happened really quickly. I made the decision and two days later I went in for surgery. After the surgery I went down to watch the Brumbies play that weekend and everyone was asking how my finger was. When I showed them that I had amputated it, they couldn’t believe it.
“As I said, I had my reasons and they all understood that eventually.”
After a few weeks on the sideline, Tawake returned to training and initially wore a glove with a prosthetic finger as he got used to catching a ball with nine fingers.
“It took quite a bit of time to get used to because your mind still thinks there is something there. Catching keys and coins was pretty tough for a while but eventually I got used to it.”
He was soon back to his best on the playing field and while Tawake didn’t make the 2007 World Cup squad, the surgery enabled the flanker to continue his playing career in Japan and France, where he went on to play Top 14 for Toulon and Narbonne.
“Personally, for myself and my family, I think I made the right decision. I got to go on and play for another six or seven years and travel the world with my family to play rugby. If I didn’t get the operation, I would have stayed in Australia and stopped playing.
“I have no regrets whatsoever now, it has become a part of me. My kids even play with my hand now and call me ‘nine fingers’. They’re used to high fouring me, so no I wouldn’t change my decision,” he said.
Tawake is now back in Australia and has spent the last few seasons coaching Canberra club side Wests. Recently, he’s also taken on a role with the Brumbies academy while he works full time as a social worker for ACT Together.
“All I want is for the kids to reach their full potential and I guess that’s what I did with rugby.
“I had to make a hard decision to keep my career alive but it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.”