In November, the prospect of not playing rugby for four weeks was enough to bring England scrum-half Claudia MacDonald to tears.
Since then, she has had to come to terms with missing out on the Red Roses’ World Cup campaign, losing her status as a professional rugby player and possibly having to give up the sport altogether.
MacDonald was preparing for the autumn internationals with England at the end of 2021 when she suffered a neck injury.
The 26-year-old took the ball from a touch and was knocked down. Her head was compressed against his chest and, at first, she did not realize the seriousness of the injury.
Thinking it was a soft tissue problem, MacDonald started with a record win against world champions New Zealand in late October.
She was on the bench as England beat the Black Ferns again the following week and then scored two tries in the win over Canada.
MacDonald felt she was at the top of her game, but this match could be her last.
‘Some days I’m angry, some days I’m in denial’
Showing “frightening” symptoms on the left side of his body, MacDonald had traveled with England to the team hotel ahead of their final autumn test against the United States.
She was told by the Red Roses medical team that she needed an MRI and would not be playing for about a month.
“At that point you’re in November and I thought I wasn’t going to play for four weeks having played some of the best rugby I’ve played – all I wanted to do was play in rugby,” MacDonald told BBC Sport.
“I remember crying at the thought of not playing for four weeks.”
After the scan, MacDonald learned she would miss Wasps’ historic game against Harlequins at Twickenham just after Christmas. She thought she would be back on the pitch in January.
This pattern of preparing to return, then not being able to, continued every three to four weeks until doctors realized it would take a lot longer for the injury to heal.
With one acutely prolapsed disc and another bulging disc, MacDonald learned she could recover in 12 to 18 months or maybe not at all.
The versatile full-back, who can also play on the wing, continued non-contact training with Wasps but says the uncertainty of the injury “circles around your brain”.
“Some days it hits you for six,” she continues.
“Some days I’m desperately upset about it, some days I’m angry, some days I’m in denial and I still think I can play and my neck is fine, especially when I’m running in training.
“Other days I can get excited and look forward to what might happen next. It’s really everywhere.”
“Difficult” decision not to have surgery
MacDonald was presented with options by several surgeons. The former said she could undergo two surgeries, with the latter further ending her rugby career for good.
The latter said the safest and best option, as a person and not just as a rugby player, was to have no surgery at all.
That would mean his neck would have to heal on its own before he could return to rugby, which may never happen.
With a return to play possibly off the table forever, refusing surgery would also mean giving up his full-time contract with England, the Red Roses’ current Six Nations campaign and October’s World Cup.
“I made the decision not to have the operation,” she explains.
“I knew the decision I was making. I was definitely saying goodbye to these Six Nations, probably to the World Cup, potentially to rugby forever.
“It was a tough decision to make, but at least it’s been made now.”
‘At a crossroads’ as career change looms
Without the contract, MacDonald is essentially unemployed. England have offered her the support of a psychologist and she does not regret the fact that she will have to give up her contract given that they are designed to support the Red Roses’ dominance at the top of the world game.
“I fully respect that there is a finite resource,” she says.
“The contracts are there to support the women who are going to go to the World Cup. That’s why England are where we are today in terms of development and progress.”
MacDonald would have expected to be part of England’s successful Six Nations Women’s campaign.
Instead, she attends job interviews because although she says “I would like to be a professional rugby player all my life”, MacDonald accepts that this is no longer possible.
She is “a bit at a crossroads”.
“I have to figure out now how I can continue to improve as a rugby player alongside what will be a different job – I don’t know by what description,” says MacDonald.
“I think what I’m going to do is retire completely and go do something else. I don’t know what that will get me.”