From representing the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship to following the grand final on Google in an Albanian restaurant to searching for a Mayan temple deep in the Guatemalan jungle, 2022 was the year that changed former second-row David Meihuizen’s life.
He had risen through the ranks at Western Province and began developing himself as a valuable asset in the Stormers squad by the age of 24 and looked like a promising talent. Only for his dream to be ripped out from under his feet by a string of head injuries that saw him hang up his boots during the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) season.
Meihuizen had concerns about the number of concussions he had suffered and, following a discussion with his team doctor, planned to see a specialist. With the appointment confirmed for a few weeks later, he packed his bags for a trip to face Connacht in a clash that all but confirmed the end of his career. One that was only just beginning in its maturity.
The final play
The match against Connacht saw the Stormers narrowly lose 19-17 but what transpired for Meihuizen was a defining moment as he received his last concussion and one that was the last straw.
“It was literally the final play of the game. I remember I got a tackle to the chest, and it was something that shouldn’t have concussed me, something that had no reason to,” Meihuizen told Planet Rugby.
Whilst the 25-year-old passed his Head Injury Assessment (HIA), he felt he had been concussed based on past experiences making the appointment with the specialist that much more important.
Meihuizen admits the reality of retirement hit home soon into the specialist’s assessment.
“After speaking to him (the specialist), in the space of 15 minutes, it became very apparent that my career was done,” he revealed. “Just from speaking to him in the sense of the amount of concussions I’d had was obviously a concern.
“But the way in which my last concussion and the fact that I was still not 100% off was very much a reason for concern. The problem with brain injuries is if you wait, like, ‘yes, okay, fine. My motor neuron skills are fine. I have no problem with memory and stuff like that.’ But you can’t wait until it’s too late.”
It was a difficult time for the towering man, who admits he immediately asked if scans would give a more comprehensive picture, but the gravity of the heartbreaking reality was just too great.
In the case of Meihuizen, it was his concern that opened discussions with his team doctor and, ultimately, the specialist to arrive at the decision to retire that may have been soul-destroying in the present but safeguards future well-being.
Meihuizen underlined his gratitude for the quality of medical staff he had dealt with throughout his career. However, he acknowledged that the medical protocols are two-way in that the medical team acts on feedback players give about their bodies – an aspect which gets tricky regarding head injuries.
“I don’t think I’ve met a single rugby player who has gone through an entire season without playing through some kind of injury,” he explained.
“It’s literally the player and the medical staff having a one-on-one communication and saying, I don’t feel 100%. Obviously, if you haven’t passed the test (HIA), then it’s black and white. Other than that, if you aren’t, let’s say, knocked out in a game, you could very easily be concussed and just never report it because you don’t want to miss out on the next week.”
The fascinating insight underlines how important it is for players to monitor their own welfare actively and reflect that with the medical personnel to allow the set protocols to protect the players.
Early retirement is a difficult and unexpected change for a young star even if the decision safeguards the well-being of the player’s future. Meihuizen took some time to process the news and then decided to travel, embarking on an incredible journey across Europe and South America.
Life waits for no man nor beast, and during his travels, the Stormers had begun firing and put together a glorious run of form that saw the Cape Town side host the grand final of the URC.
Anxious times in Albania
Unable to watch or stream the game whilst backpacking in Albania, Meihuizen experienced the clash through Google updates.
“I was literally on Google, refreshing the score in the middle of a restaurant, and I was wearing my Stormers t-shirt. Everyone else was having dinner, and I couldn’t eat. I was just sitting there. 77 minutes, 78 minutes, 79 minutes, 80 minutes. Then it stayed on 80 minutes for like five minutes, and I was like, ‘what’s going on now’. Then when it said full time, I stood up and shouted in the middle of the restaurant.” Meihuizen recalled.
It was a historic moment for the Stormers as the title was the first in the club’s history and came at a time when the financial security of the franchise was at risk.
Meihuizen was overjoyed for the momentous occasion and for all his former teammates, who he is still close with, but the reality of his forced retirement from the same team who were basking in glory quickly set in.
“It was just pure joy for, I’d say, about two seconds and then it was this sinking feeling of like, oh, I wasn’t there. Like I could have been there like this was this was still the season that I was involved in. This is three months after I retired. So it was like this just a sinking feeling of like, I should have been there. Even if I wasn’t playing, I just should have been there to like, support the boys and cheer them on and just help in any way I could. It was definitely a bittersweet feeling,” he said.
The 25-year-old’s love for his former team remains strong, and Meihuizen joined in the general excitement across the rugby fraternity over the dawn of a new era that will see the Stormers, Bulls, and Sharks make their Champions Cup debut.
Full of faith
A Western Province man through and through Meihuizen showed complete belief when asked how he believes the Stormers will fare in the greatest club competition in the world.
“I’m backing the boys to go all the way. I’m backing us. I have full faith in the team, I have full faith in our ability, and I think we just need to perform on each given day. Every single week brings a new challenge. Every single week brings new opposition, which we are 100% capable of playing and beating. It’s just all about performance or potential and showing up on the day,” he passionately exclaimed.
The tale of David Meihuizen is fascinating. A lover of life whose dream was torn apart almost as soon as it was starting to be realised. A story that is sad but so positive in the sense of securing a healthy future. He ended the discussion with some profound words of advice for rugby players.
“Don’t rush back if you do have a head injury. Take the time even if you miss out on one more game. It’s not worth ending your career over.
“Rugby ends too quickly, so enjoy it and take your time.”