Lying on an operating table in Los Angeles having a 25mm screw inserted into his spine to fix a fractured vertebrae, promising youngster Michael Hobbs contemplated that his career as a professional rugby player may well be over.
Yet here he stands 18 months on, having forced his way into the starting number 10 jersey and tasked with orchestrating the Blues backline in one of the biggest matches of his life. It is an incredible achievement for Hobbs and a moment he thought he may never get to enjoy.
“Until the first game that I played (after surgery) for Old Boys University back in Wellington I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to play rugby again,” Hobbs conceded.
“It’s all very well doing the training but once you get into the contact and you’re getting whacked around that’s when you really find out whether or not it’s healed properly so for a long time there I was definitely worried about it.”
For that reason the diligent 24-year-old hit the books, enrolling at the University of Texas in Austin to study finance and accountancy. He still has one paper to go and will continue to work on it during the Super Rugby season, liaising with his tutor at Victoria University and flying to Wellington for his final exam in June.
But the back surgery has given Hobbs a newfound commitment towards his rugby. He realises he has been given a second shot and is determined to make the most of it, starting with tonight’s clash against the Crusaders.†
“You’re obviously nervous and it’s a big occasion but at the same time I’m trying to look at it as being an awesome opportunity and one that I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get again,” Hobbs said.
“To go out on the opening night of the Super Rugby season against the Crusaders at Eden Park, there aren’t many more special occasions than that.”
Having given Hobbs his first taste of Super Rugby back in 2009, Blues head coach Pat Lam said it was brilliant to see Hobbs back in Blues colours after overcoming adversity.
“It’s character building when players go through tough times and I’ve always said it’s not necessarily the player who first makes it that becomes the best player, it’s the one that goes through adversity, either through non selection or injury that is more determined,” Lam said.
“When they fight their way back to that level it shows a bit of inner strength and that’s what I admire about Hobbsy. He can draw on that inner strength when times get tough out on the field.”
Hobbs has certainly had a fight on his hands to force his way into the starting XV for tonight’s match. In the fiercely competitive first five position, strong performances during the pre-season have seen him edge out All Black star Piri Weepu and young gun Gareth Anscombe to be the first player to get a crack at guiding the team from 10.
But Hobbs said that competition could only be healthy for the team.
“There’s Gareth and Piri who can obviously play 10 as well so there’s been no shortage of pressure at training which has been good. You have to perform at training if you want to play in the games on the weekend and that’s been good having that added pressure during the week and making sure we’re all striving to get better and not resting on our laurels because if you do you’ll get overtaken.”
In his first start at 10 for the Blues tonight, there’s comfort in the knowledge he is playing outside his close friend and halfback Alby Mathewson, with whom he has previously played alongside for five years in Wellington.
“I’ve known Alby for ages; we used to live together in Wellington so we’ve got a pretty good relationship. I’m confident in his ability and he’s confident in mine so hopefully we’ll go out there and put in a good performance.”
Hobbs acknowledges tonight is a golden opportunity to put a stake in the ground and make the Blues’ number 10 jersey his own.
“Obviously there’s a lot of competition for it but if I can go out there and play a good game and put us in good parts of the field and we have a good win then who knows what will happen. All I can control is how I go this weekend so I’ll just be out there trying to do my best.”