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From a career ending injury to European touch rugby glory: How UOG’s Charlotte McFarland defied all odds

10 years ago, University of Gloucestershire Women’s Rugby star Charlotte McFarland was football mad, but the spontaneous decision to try something new saw her discover her love and passion for rugby.

“My dad was a semi-professional football player and my whole family is football, football football,” she said, speaking to Park Life Sport. “My dad ran a martial arts class and one of the mums said she was setting up a rugby team and that I should join. Initially I was unsure because I liked football, but my mum encouraged me to go.

“I went to the training session and there was loads of people, probably about 30 girls there and I loved it. The following week I quit football and bought the rugby membership and never looked back.”

Charlotte McFarland (middle) – Instagram: charlottemcfarland

It took three years of playing before the 22-year-old realised how far her hard work and talent could take her.

“Year 10 was when I really started to believe I was good at the sport and that’s when I started to get into county and south west squads. I think the major passion started in year 10 but I started playing in year seven.

“A coach said I really had potential and that I needed to knuckle down if I wanted to go somewhere.

“Some of my teammates were already in south west squads so I thought that was done then and that they’d been picked. But I needed to go for it, work hard and I’d get there too.”

Currently studying Sports Therapy at UoG, McFarland has achieved a lot since. Not least, captaining England’s U23 touch rugby team to European gold in November 2019.

However, 6 months earlier, she was told what no athlete wants to hear – that she may never play the sport again.

“I got injured at a university match, it was Southampton away,” McFarland began. “It didn’t appear to be anything too bad, it didn’t look spectacular. I took a hit and I noticed my shoulder stung a little bit, but as a rugby player you think to just shake it off and that it will be fine.

“I tackled someone again and then as we both went down, my shoulder hit the floor and I felt, ‘oh, this isn’t a pleasant feeling.’ I sort of ran a little bit, but I couldn’t move my arm so I came off with about 20 minutes left to play.”

Instagram: charlottemcfarland

Charlotte went to hospital and had a scan, initially being told it was likely just soft tissue. She spent three weeks in constant pain as she waited for the scan results.

“One day I just woke up and there was no pain. The results came back that I’d ruptured my rotator cuff, but the no pain I felt was because another muscle had gone.

“It was hanging on by a little thread and then in my sleep I’d just rolled over and it went. So I’d lost two muscles from their attachment points.

“They said I’d need an operation and that I’d probably never be able to play rugby again. To me, I’d been playing rugby for 12 years, it’s my life. I’ve got plans and I felt this surely can’t be the end for me.”

Not playing rugby ever again wasn’t an option for McFarland and she was determined to do everything she could to play once again.

“I went into a bit of a rut after that really, what was I going to do? I didn’t want to be on the sidelines, I could’ve gone into coaching but then that’s not me out on the pitch doing the work.

“I didn’t want an operation because that was it, pins, plates and a full shoulder reconstruction – that would’ve been me done and I’m only 22.

“I was so fortunate to have a massive medical team behind me and I asked, ‘what can I do, can I live without a muscle?’ I was told I could, but that it would go eventually, which was fine with me. I can deal with eventually, when I’m 30 or 40 and I don’t need to play rugby anymore.”

View this post on Instagram

I don’t usually post stuff like this but rugby is a massive part of who I am, and a few weeks ago I was told there is a chance that I will never step back on the rugby pitch as a player because of my shoulder injury. I asked for option 2 because quitting was a no, option 2 is 3 months of hard rehab just to build my shoulder strength up enough to prove I can live without a few muscles and join the long rehab process and go back to the sport that defines who I am! It’s not going to be easy and I have a lot of steroid injections ahead of me to help but I will be back on that pitch 💙 I genuinely couldn’t of taken that news and carried on my day to day life without my close friends and family, you know who you are ❤️

A post shared by Charlotte McFarland (@charlottemcfarland) on

It was to be a long road to recovery and months on the sideline, but it was steps worth taking as McFarland built herself back up to full fitness.

“6-8 months I was in rehab. I’d wake up, rehab, go to bed, rehab. There was no other option.

“My first game back was a university game. I’d already started playing touch, though, because it was semi-contact and it was good to build me up again.” 

“It was a big moment for me and an amazing feeling. I do sports therapy so I’d been the physio for all the games I’d missed. It was fun and I was getting experience for my degree but it wasn’t playing, so I’d been counting down the days to playing again.”

The months spent in the stands were soon to be made worth it for the UoG student as she not only secured gold at the European Touch Challenge Trophy in November 2019 – but captained the side.

“This opportunity came about really fresh after my injury, it was an U23s tournament. We had training camps, nutritional advice and such.

“Everything was going really well and the week before, we had a camp before the tournament and we were all sat in a huddle, going through everything we needed to know.

“One of the girls asked about leadership of the team and the coach said ‘well I was going to ask Charlotte if she would like to captain the team – it was an absolute honour to be asked as it’s everyone’s dream to captain their country.

“We then flew out to Spain and because there were a lot of young girls in the team, I felt a sense of responsibility, as some of them were 15 and really nervous.

“I’d experienced a few campaigns already so I knew I had to help. But it was amazing, the girls really pulled it off. We went undefeated and the amount of tries we were scoring. Everything clicked. Still to this day, it’s the best experience I’ve ever had, to say that I captained that team. 

“I was allowed to keep the trophy. It was huge and a nightmare trying to get it back through customs, though! I was stopped and they were asking what it was!”

McFarland’s achievements and commitment to the sport have earned her a deserved nomination for the University of Gloucestershire’s Sports Personality of the Year award.

“I was completely shocked. I think of how many people are at uni and how amazing everyone is. It’s not just about sporting background, it’s how much you put into your club.

“I’m extremely thankful for it and it’s a pleasure to be nominated.”

Voting details will be announced in the next week and you can keep up to date on the @yoursu twitter or @yoursusports.

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