On a Saturday in March 2015, Maciu Vosa left his home in Melbourne’s western suburbs to play rugby.
It was nine months before he returned, just in time to join his young family for Christmas, his first as a quadriplegic.
It was the beginning of Vosa’s final season; the 34-year-old convinced to delay retirement one more year after his beloved Harlequin club lost the 2014 second grade grand final to Endeavour Hills.
The powerful Fijian-born second rower burst through the first line out of the match against Melbourne University to disrupt their ball, but the ensuing maul collapsed, and he immediately knew something was wrong.
“All of a sudden I hear a crack behind my neck and I thought, 'This is serious',” he says. ‘"The first thing which came to mind was move my legs and arms, and they were still moving.
“My left side felt really hot and, right away, they told me that I might have a spinal injury.”
What followed was six weeks in the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg, two of those heavily sedated in intensive care, and then eight long months at the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre.
“When it first happened, basically he could move his lips, that was it,” wife Kylie Vosa says. “He couldn’t even scratch his nose; we had to do everything for him.”
Added to the physical and emotional impact of the injury, the Vosas were faced with enormous medical bills on a dwindling income, but they were about to find out just how much the rugby family looks after its own.
But Harlequin, a 90-year-old club based in the south-east Melbourne suburb of Ashwood, were initially as unprepared for such a tragedy as the Vosas.
“It was such a shocking thing. We’re used to seeing people get injured but the worst it gets is, off they go to hospital, and you see them the next week at rugby again,” club treasurer Bronwyn Wellings says. “We had never had such a serious injury to deal with and we weren’t equipped for it."
A working group (now coined 4Matty) was formed immediately, comprising of Wellings, club captain Pete Dawson, then second-grade manager Dave Phillips and Vosa’s former first-grade coach Ruhan van Zyl.
Uncertain of how to best help the Vosas, Wellings recalls a crucial conference call with Rugby AU’s peer support officer on spinal injury and Hearts in Union founder Rocky Mileto.
“We were completely out of our depth - we didn’t know what we were dealing with - it was very scary, but I can just remember hearing Rocky and he was a voice of calmness and reassurance,” she says.
“The main thing I remember him saying was, ‘My injury was 19 years ago and my rugby club (Orange City Lions) are still raising money for me every year’.
“I thought, 'Right, got it, that’s what we’re going to do'.”
A bank account and trust were created and, in just over three years, a staggering $600,000 has been raised to assist Maciu’s recovery.
Earlier this month the annual #4Matty Golf Day attracted a sell-out crowd (and MCs Sean Maloney and Rod Kafer) to Eynesbury, west of Melbourne.
Melbourne Rebels CEO Baden Stephenson and coach Dave Wessels were on hand to lend their support and $40,000 was raised— but the rugby community is a global one - and that has been reflected in the support.
Donations have come from various European clubs, including the London Harlequins players union and supporters group, and the visiting England squad also made a touching gesture while in Melbourne for the 2016 series against the Wallabies.
“Dave Phillips extended an invitation through Twitter to (Harlequins and England fullback) Mike Brown and next thing all six of the Harlequins players in the England team showed up at a junior training night, had heaps of prizes for the kids, and answered heaps of questions,” Wellings recalls.
While the monetary support has gone towards crucial items like a new vehicle to transport Maciu and making the family home wheelchair accessible, it’s the non-financial gestures which have demonstrated the true spirit of the rugby community.
“One day we had 12 first-grade players at home helping construct a wheelchair accessible path,” Kylie says. “They spent the whole day landscaping and working on their day off.”
Harlequin also wore a special Maciu Vosa jersey for their 2015 Dewar Shield grand final victory over Melbourne University, which raised $3,500 at auction a few weeks later.
“We didn’t know they were going to wear them; that was a great surprise on the day,” Kylie says.
A dedicated Maciu Vosa jersey is now worn at the first home fixture every season, something he is always on the sideline to see, and this year’s annual auction after the game raised another $5,000.
“If I could get up today I would still want to run around and play rugby again,” Maciu says. “I try to show the guys the seriousness of spinal injury, but that it’s also not the end of life, being in a wheelchair.
“Injuries are going to happen, you’re aware of that since the first day you touch a rugby ball, but injury doesn’t take away what you really love about playing rugby, even a spinal injury. You still want to be part of it and share in the experience.”
In mid-2016, surgeons transferred nerves from Maciu's right elbow and wrist to his fingers and thumb hopeful it would enable him to grasp, and nerves from his left arm were transferred to his wrist hoping to improve his wrist extension.
It’s been a two-year wait for those nerves to grow in and, after some further tweaking of the tendons in his right hand, he now has a pincher grip. He can eat and drink independently, use a mobile phone and, most importantly, give better hugs to children Ezekia and Ariella.
“That’s one of the things I miss most, just not being able to pick them up and hug them, but it’s a big motivation for me to get stronger in rehabilitation,” he says.
It’s hoped further surgery in September will provide greater elbow and wrist extension on his problematic left side, crucial to be able to push himself independently in a manual chair.
This increased range of movement enabled the Vosas to take Maciu home to Fiji in April for the first time in seven years, accompanied by Phillips and van Zyl, who promised to chaperone Maciu early in his rehabilitation when he gained enough strength.
“We were grateful for their presence as Maciu still had to be lifted manually on and off the plane and they helped with transfers to and from the airport and around his village of Navutu,” Kylie says.
But the joy of the trip was tempered by an incident on the way home at Melbourne Airport when Maciu, strapped into his wheelchair, was dropped from the hoist of a Maxi Taxi on to his shoulder and head.
“He spent the night at the Austin Hospital undergoing tests but thankfully nothing was broken, as we feared. He’s slowly on the mend and the new wheelchair (worth $9,000) also appears to be okay,” Kylie says.
It might be the place where his life changed forever, but it’s easy to see why Maciu still attends every home game at the Harlequin club.
Here, he’s not defined by his disability; he’s treated as an equal, a rugby player who has sacrificed more than anyone should have to for the jersey, and that recognition is in the eyes of every person who greets him as he watches the action from the regular position in front of the rooms.
Ezekia and Ariella run around with their mates dressed in club colours, and Kylie clearly has her own community here too.
In fact, Maciu’s accident seems to have had a galvanising effect on the place and so many relationships within it.
“Rugby people are the ones who have stayed in touch the whole time since the injury. We had other friends we used to see before he was injured, but they have fallen by the wayside a little bit,” Kylie says.
“Still, to this day, the club are the first ones we ring if we’ve got a problem with anything regarding Maciu’s care, or dealing with government agencies - they find a way to help us.”
The ultimate fundraising goal is to build a purpose-built home for the Vosas because, despite the many improvements, Maciu’s injury is still having a huge impact on family life in their current dwelling.
“It is kind of sad. At night time we’re all sitting in different areas of the house because of the small rooms and the size of his chair, and he can’t go into the kids’ rooms to say goodnight,” Kylie says.
“The special hospital bed takes up most of the master bedroom, so there’s nowhere I can really sit in there to watch a movie or anything. Maciu buzzes me on a bell like in hospital if he wants something.”
Wellings said those involved with Maciu’s recovery have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the rugby community and, in particular, acknowledged the support of Hearts in Union.
“Nick Stevens from the Hearts in Union has been wonderful - not only with financial help - but the personal interest which he has always shown in Matt and Kylie,” she says.
“He’s always there to remind us that what we are trying to do is also really important and it gives us the confidence to keep going.”
Stevens will be sitting with the Vosas at AAMI Park on Saturday night for the second Test against Ireland, along with members of the Harlequin wheelchair rugby team, who have just won their third consecutive premiership.
“That’s yet another new link that’s been made because of Maciu’s injury,” Kylie says. “We’re now trying hard to build relationships between the players of the two sports who compete under the Harlequin banner.
“Our aim is to make Harlequin a really inclusive and accessible club and that, in time, other Melbourne clubs will follow.”