Former Wallaby Richard Tombs two years on from his devastating accident

STRENGTH: North Narrabeen Rockpool is one of Richard Tombs' favourite spots on Sydney's Northern Beaches. Picture: Simon Bennett
STRENGTH: North Narrabeen Rockpool is one of Richard Tombs' favourite spots on Sydney's Northern Beaches. Picture: Simon Bennett

Two years on from a devastating accident, rugby great Richard Tombs is facing life in a wheelchair with strength and courage. 

There is nothing quite like a challenge to inspire a man like Richard Tombs into fighting for what he wants.

For years, he was one of the toughest men on the field. He trained hard and he played hard and all that hard work paid off.

The former Australian international rugby union player pulled on a Wallabies jersey to play five tests. The fast-running centre was an Australian schoolboy rugby player and also played for the NSW Waratahs.

"I used to think that I was Peter Pan, I was never going to grow old," Tombs, 52, said.

"I was very energetic, I was always throwing the ball around, always putting my hand up for a challenge and then I turned a 180 degree corner."

A freak accident changed everything for the Sydney Northern Beaches father-of-three who grew up in Gunnedah on NSW's Liverpool Plains. The always-competitive athlete was filling in as goalkeeper in a football game against Belrose when his life changed forever. He had stopped playing for the Wallabies in 1996, and signed on to the prestigious Gloucester Rugby club for three years.

Richard Tombs while playing for the NSW Waratahs in 1996. Picture: Rugby AU

Richard Tombs while playing for the NSW Waratahs in 1996. Picture: Rugby AU

On his return, he was not about to slow down and he had played 12 seasons of football for Curl Curl in the Manly Warringah over-35s competition by the time he ran on for this particular match on August 4, 2018.

His memories of the accident are crystal clear. It was only about 10 to 15 minutes into the game. He was 50 years old.

"I got a knock on my head and I knew straight away," he said.

"I remember the incident and I remember all the looks on their faces while they were all gathered around. I could see the way people were looking at me, it was looks of despair. I remember the ambulance ride, but what I don't remember much is at the hospital."

He sustained an incomplete C4 central spinal cord injury and he spent the next seven days in the Royal North Shore Hospital's intensive care unit.

"I had a neck fusion - cervical three, four and five - with a steel rod to stabilise my spinal cord," he said.

You'll walk again

Richard Tombs in his Wallabies jersey. Picture: Rugby AU

Richard Tombs in his Wallabies jersey. Picture: Rugby AU

The initial prognosis for Tombs ever getting back on his feet again was grim, but then everything changed.

"I had a surgeon who came and saw me who heard my toes were moving and he told me I'd walk again and that's exactly what I needed to hear," he said.

"That was my inspiration to get going with my physio ... because the prognosis was that I would walk again I just got stuck into it."

After ICU, he was in Royal North Shore's spinal ward for five weeks and then spent then next four or five months at Royal Rehab at Ryde.

"That's the best point, it was all about rehab," he said.

Supporters unite around him

FAMILY: Richard Tombs (centre) with his daughters Ukiesha, Latika and Talani, and wife Carissa in July 2019.

FAMILY: Richard Tombs (centre) with his daughters Ukiesha, Latika and Talani, and wife Carissa in July 2019.

As Tombs got stuck into his rehabilitation, friends, players, the community and his family rallied around him.

Right beside him as he struggled through endless rehab sessions and doctors appointments was his wife Carissa and their three daughters Latika, Talani and Ukiesha.

The couple have been married for 24 years and Tombs admits he was "smitten" from the moment he met her.

Carissa is also well known in Australian sport and played netball for Australia for 12 years, including in winning world tournaments in 1991, 1995 and 1999.

"We met at the national sports awards, she'd won the World Championships for netball, we'd won the World Cup for rugby and we were there as competing for the top gong of the best Australian team," he said.

"I was a bit smitten, but I don't know if she totally remembered my approach. I remind her of that every time the opportunity comes up."

Setbacks to healing

Rehabilitation was tracking well until the spasticity started to emerge three months into his treatment, complicating his hopes of walking again.

"Most, if not all, spinal injured people will have a form of spasticity," said Tombs. "It was going really well but when that hit it started to fall apart. My muscles are fighting each other when I'm trying to move and it makes it awkward and unbalanced."

It also causes him to feel "intense heat" every single day.

"It's a bit like an electric blanket, it's deep within and it radiates around me," he explained.

On his feet again

These days, Tombs is walking, but it's not the type of walking that he yearned for.

"I had more grandiose thoughts of what my walking would be. I can walk, albeit it's not a very functional walk. It's probably what the surgeon meant at the time, but I was expecting a different walk," he said.

"I was expecting it to be a functional walk and that I wouldn't need the wheelchair. That would have been my ideal, but I haven't got to that and I don't think I'll get to that.

"I'm disappointed, I reckon I peaked at 18 months and I haven't had any changes and it's frustrating. It's not where I'd like to be. It's challenging, very challenging, both physically and mentally.

It's very challenging, both physically and mentally. I wake up every morning hoping that my legs will move.

"I wake up every morning hoping that my legs will move and then when I go to move them it sends me into spasm because they've been asleep and then I realise not today, maybe tomorrow."

While "resigned" to his situation today, he said he has hope and is "more positive than negative".

"I hold out hope that technology will come around. There's a lot of research around and hopefully something will happen in the next 10 years," he said.

"I'm going to get the rods taken out of my neck, I hope that will relieve some symptoms and who knows it might turn off the spasticity."

Keen to stay motivated

HELPING OTHERS: Richard Tombs created the Guns Out Spinal Foundation in the wake of his accident two years ago. Picture: Simon Bennett

HELPING OTHERS: Richard Tombs created the Guns Out Spinal Foundation in the wake of his accident two years ago. Picture: Simon Bennett

Ever since he stopped playing rugby, Tombs has worked in orthopaedics and medical devices and continues to do so, largely in the medical education department, training the sales team in orthopaedics.

In the wake of his accident, he also founded Guns Out Spinal Foundation to help bring together people going through the same challenges, to help raise awareness of the impact of spasticity, and to help fund research to find a cure.

He is regularly called on for speaking engagements, including a recent talk via Zoom to a group in Asia where he spoke about resilience and building foundations.

He also speaks to sporting groups, particularly junior sport participants.

"I love meeting people and learning more about different people and different organisations and how I can assist them, I get a lot out of it myself," he said. "If I can bring benefits to an organisation or individuals, I love being a part of that."

He's also keen to keep improving his mind and body.

She's vibrant, she has a hard edge but a great sense of humour.

Richard Tombs on his wife Carissa

"I always want to improve, particularly on a physical front these days, but also emotionally and cognitively," he said.

Tombs said the unwavering support of his wife Carissa has been absolutely vital these past two years.

"She's vibrant, she has a hard edge but a great sense of humour," he said, adding that he gets joy every day watching his family's happiness and success.

"When my kids come home with good news and good experiences, like my second daughter [Talani] who just finished her Year 12 exams. She's been on cloud nine and it's fantastic to be part of that," he said.

"My daughter [Latika] last night verbally had her contract renewed for the Giants netball as a training partner so she's rapt about that.

"It's great to see them riding the crest of a wave."

Northern beaches sweet spots

Richard Tombs moved to Narrabeen on the Northern Beaches in 2003 with his wife Carissa and their daughters Latika and Talani. Their youngest daughter Ukiesha was born in 2007.

"We moved from the north shore because Carissa was from the northern beaches, she grew up in Avalon," he said. "It just seemed like a logical move, I'd finished my rugby, we had young kids and we'd outgrown our house in Naremburn.

"The lifestyle we have is unbeatable, I struggle to get my family off the northern beaches even during the holidays."

Best coffee: Definitely Zubi Espresso at North Narrabeen.

Best food/drinks: I love going to Mexicano in North Narrabeen.

Best fresh air spots: These days it's North Narrabeen Rockpool.

"If I can get in the water it's a spring of life, like anyone when they get in the salt water or the water it certainly lifts their spirits," he said.

The waters here are where Tombs undertakes regular rehab sessions with his friend, triathlete Carter Jackson. He finds the ocean waters that fill the pool healing as they soothe and cool his tight muscles that continue to fight against each other.

This story From Wallaby to learning to walk again, Richard Tombs now has his 'guns out' first appeared on Northern Beaches Review.