The impact propelled Michael Collinson forward in his car seat. The giant bull landed on the roof, forcing it down on top of his neck, severing his spinal chord. A ‘perfect’ shot. Instantly, it made him a paraplegic. He died three times that night.
I couldn’t even get dying right,” laughs Michael Collinson, as he recounts the tale from his Swaziland farm. “We’d been driving back from a friend’s house on Boxing Day, it was dark and raining. Really raining – because although it’s summer, you get fierce rain – like you couldn’t believe.
“We drove around a corner and in the middle of the road there was this huge, black bull. We tripped it up, and it came down on my side of the car and the roof came down on me square on the neck. I should’ve actually been a quadraplegic. They lost my pulse on the scene completely, but brought me back, and drove me to a private clinic – this isn’t the sort of place you’d go to a government hospital. But the clinic was 30km further away, and as we drove past the hospital, the paramedics said I wouldn’t make it, so we had to stop. The hospital wasn’t open and we had to break in. The private doctor came down to where we were and stabilised me – he saved my life.”
For Michael, this kind of drama wasn’t completely unique. Seven years before the ‘tripping the bull’ incident, he’d almost lost the use of his legs after a brutal rugby match. Playing across the border in South Africa, in a game supposedly with the dual billing of ‘semi-contact’ and ‘friendly’, Michael – a 6ft 3in lock – was targeted. “We were trouncing them,” he says, “I was having the game of my life and as I came out of a ruck on all fours, two guys jumped on me – I was like a spatchcock chicken. I had a broken disc, pelvic bone and my pubic joint was separated by six centimetres. I could’ve given birth if I’d wanted – my world was literally falling out of my bottom. I was lying on my back and thought that was it, I couldn’t walk, I was done.”
But he wasn’t. He recovered. And put the boots on again – this time for Swaziland, the country that had been his home since 1985.
The bull though, did the job that his ‘friendly’ opponents of 1995 couldn’t. This time, Michael had definitely been retired from rugby. “My dad jokes that when the accident happened in 1995, it was God’s way of telling me how bad I’d got at rugby and it was time to stop,” he laughs. “But I defied God, and so he sent the bull – he figured me playing rugby had to stop.”
Rugby didn’t stop, though. In fact, ultimately, through his charity SKRUM, rugby would be an even bigger part of his life than ever before – an all-consuming, 24/7 passion. And it was the result of making a momentous decision in the crucial hours that followed after hitting that bull. “It was quite amazing,” says Michael, picking up the story. “There was an hour, I think it was about 1am after the accident and I had complete compos mentis and I remember saying to my wife Linda how amazing I felt. I knew that I’d been dealt this hand and I either had to play it or give in, and I wanted to play the hand. It might sound strange, but I was in a really good place. Weirdly, it was better than in 1995 because I knew it was final. Back then, I wasn’t sure if I’d walk again or not, but this time I knew for sure so it was easier to deal with. I could breathe, I had use of both hands which was great – there were a lot of people who were worse off than me – so we got on with it.”
Such was Michael’s almost surreal positivity after his accident, that he checked himself out of rehab at the first opportunity – thereby escaping the people around him in the clinic with the ‘why me?’ attitude.
As president of the Swaziland rugby union, Michael was already heavily involved in the sport, but it was his and Linda’s interiors business that paid the bills. Despite his intentions, more and more, Michael inadvertently used work as a hiding place. “I was shutting myself into the store,” he admits. “I wasn’t getting out, but my wife forced me out. You’re not the the same person, you do feel a bit out of place. I met one guy – a wheelchair basketball player – who told me that, after the accident, I’d be able to count on both hands the friends I’d end up with. And it was true. Half the time it was not you that had the issue, but other people. They didn’t see you the same: you’re a cripple, you’re disabled, you’re not a ‘person’ anymore. One of my very good friends didn’t see me because he ‘couldn’t bear to see me like this’. It was them, not me. I was still as ugly as I was before, I was just shorter – still 6ft 3in long, just not high, and I was sitting down all the time.”
Still, his work with the Swaziland rugby union, meant rugby was never far from his thoughts and, having earned his coaching badges at Natal Sharks, he attempted a return to the training paddock. “It was funny,” he says. Indeed, as he often says, as Michael is a man who sees the lighter side – even in the darkest of places, “I tried to coach again and I had a player pushing me around in a wheelchair – it felt very colonial, telling someone to push me over here or there. Thank God I had a wheelchair that could go on grass. It was difficult, even with everyone trying their hardest to make it work. You can’t have a big hairy arse prop saying ‘fuck you’ to someone one minute, then the next turning to me and saying ‘where can I push you Michael?’ It turns you into their grandmother. I just realised I didn’t belong there, in that way.”
Instead, he adapted by becoming a coach of coaches. “I’ve always thought a coach should be in a tracksuit on the field, but I still knew the technical stuff, so while I couldn’t be hands on, I could educate coaches.”
The realisation of his role in rugby, combined with a trip to the bush, was what set the wheels in motion for SKRUM. “I’d been feeling like a tiger in a cage in the interiors store, walking, or rather rolling, up and down, around in circles, and so Linda and I went out to the bush. We visited homesteads we’d stayed at before, but kept finding that people who were there before had gone, so many of them. The Swazis don’t ever say someone has died, just that ‘they’ve moved on’. We’d go to a homestead and ask for Phil and Betty and find they’d ‘moved on’ and the grandmother was looking after the kids. It happened time and time again. If it wasn’t a grandmother in charge, it was a 19-year-old.”
HIV had been the cause of so many people ‘moving on’. Sweeping across Swaziland, it’s impact was – and still is – immense. There are said to be 345,000 people living with HIV in Swaziland – that’s 28.8% of the population, the highest in the world.
“It played on our minds after that trip,” admits Michael. “People weren’t dying of HIV, they were dying because nobody was talking about it. They believed so many terrible myths: you can’t use the same toilet; you can’t hug; you can’t use the same knives and forks; having sex with a virgin cures you of AIDS, the younger the better.”
Michael’s previous job distributing medical supplies meant he had access to a network of doctors to consult. The result was SKRUM, the Swaziland Kids Rugby Mission, a charity that would use rugby as a way of delivering HIV education. “We got the clubs to spread the word about what we were trying to do,” explains Collinson. “We managed to get some funding, from friends and family, and raised enough to hire two coaches and SKRUM was born.”
The approach when they first began, was the same as it is today – ten years and more than 600 school visits later. “What we did then is what we’re still doing,” says Michael. “If you go to a 14-year-old and say we’re going to talk about HIV, you’ll never see them again. But if you find ways to connect first then you can build up trust. We’re playing silly games to get kids involved, we’ve got a song ‘Pass the ball not the virus’ and we try and get messages across in games. So it might be about protecting the ball, protecting yourself. Respect the ball, respect yourself. We make it fun, without them even noticing. All the time we’re drip-feeding messages and, at the end, we all sit down, hand out pamphlets and have a Q and A session. Issues surrounding sex and HIV are never discussed, they’re taboo subjects.”
While sex education in Swaziland can begin from the age of 12 years and older, SKRUM is still able to have an impact at a younger age, running sessions for younger children to build trust. “We’ve visited more than 600 schools from the 800 or so in Swaziland, but we’re not visiting any more new schools at the moment because we want to revisit and reaffirm,” explains Michael.
Even with just three full-time coaches, SKRUM still manages eight coaching sessions a week across the country. Help has been forthcoming from the rugby community with the support of two English schools enabling them to take a single session of 1,000 children.
Number crunching is one thing, though what Michael has noticed more, is the day-to-day impact of SKRUM and the people it reaches. “Only the other week I was putting fuel in the car, and the pump attendant came up to me and said ‘How are you Mr Collinson, do you remember me?’ Before starting to sing the ‘Pass the ball, not the virus’ song. Another time I was at a police roadblock in the SKRUM pickup and the officer said to me: ‘Pass the ball, not the virus – my daughter went to one of your sessions’. It was great, it meant the parents as well as the kids were learning.”
That learning doesn’t just stop at HIV either, with SKRUM now expanding its education offering to cover other serious issues. “We also look at gender violence,” explains Michael. And we’re always thinking of other ways to help. Swaziland has just been through one of the worst droughts ever, so we’re trying to raise funds to fit guttering and tanks at schools so they can harvest water. We’re also empowering youngsters by sending them home from SKRUM sessions with a fruit tree. Imagine going home to your village and you’ve not only got the t-shirt, but also a way to help feed your family.”
Michael admits he’s come a long way. From his roots in Doncaster, as an over-sized rugby league winger, to trying his luck in union with Richmond and finding it all a bit serious, Michael has found his rugby utopia in the most unusual of places. He’s even won a British Empire Medal for his troubles. “I tried to upgrade to a knighthood,” he laughs, “I still can’t believe I’ve won it.”
The true reward for Michael, clearly, comes from the day job. “I go out every day and each one is totally different. Seeing the youngsters, hearing them sing the song, listening to them talk, it’s just great. I know we’re doing good work. The feedback we get from headteachers proves we’re not being fanciful and we’re doing something right.”