Bush Beat: How one brother's recovery led to a Sinclair triple treat

Shute Shield
by Stu Walmsley

Tracking of rugby exploits of their three sons has always been a logistical nightmare for Malcolm and Prue Sinclair but, last weekend, things got a whole lot simpler.

Angus, Hamish and Hugh all started in first grade for Northern Suburbs at T G Millner Field, the first time the siblings have shared the same pitch at the same time, and an occurrence also unique in the club’s 120-year history.

Hugh’s two tries from number 8 in the 44-14 Shute Shield victory over Eastwood made the family affair all the more satisfying, and the triple treat could be repeated today in the club’s first home game of the season at North Sydney Oval against Manly Marlins with Hamish coming off the bench.

It’s all a bit surreal for eldest brother Angus who, this time four years ago, barely had the energy to lift his head from the pillow as he began a long, slow recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

He spent months convalescing on the family farm near Greenethorpe, 370km west of Sydney, before tentatively returning to pre-season training with Norths at the end of 2015.

If you told him that, less than a year later, he’d be sitting in the dressing sheds at North Sydney Oval holding the Shute Shield with brother Hugh having played a full season and broken the club’s 41-year premiership drought, he scarcely would have believed you.

“That season I came back into a dream,” says the 28-year-old playmaker. 

“After eight games I think we’d won four and lost four and it was looking like an all right team, and then we went on a 13-game winning streak, including the grand final.

“It was pretty crazy - that hour on the field after the game when all the supporters and family were celebrating and taking photos with the shield - that was the best hour of my life.

“I remember everything I did that was semi normal that year just made me so happy because of not being able to do it before.

“It makes you very grateful.

“Then to be out there together with Hugh and Hamish (on Saturday) was a similar feeling.”

Playing footy with brother Hugh, as they had done as youngsters in the backyard of the family home in Lindfield, was one of the main drivers for Angus in his 18-month recovery from CFS.

“I knew I would be fully recovered if I could play rugby again,” he says.

“I’d also never played with my brother before. After he came to Norths, I said; ‘I want to play rugby again, with you, at Norths. I didn’t really care about any career or anything after that. 

“I started studying part time, but my goal was literally to get healthy so I could play rugby with Hugh.” 

In 2003, the Sinclairs bought the property in prime cropping and grazing country at Greenethorpe, and the family spent the recent Easter weekend together droving cattle along a stock route in the nearby Tyagong Valley. 

There was time for a barbecue on the banks of the Tyagong Creek on Easter Sunday and, despite their Lindfield link and the fact Malcolm has a background in stockbroking, they’ve just about lost the local label of ‘Pitt Street farmers’.

“The boys and (sister) Camilla absolutely love it up here, although they all work and study in Sydney,” says mum Prue Sinclair, who grew up around Walgett in northern NSW.

“Angus would come and go during his convalescence - he was very open and would ring me when he was struggling - he’d go for easy walks with the dogs, read or sit or meditate in the sun.

“There’s no doubt being in the bush and being loved by so many people helped his recovery.”

Back to full health and balancing rugby and full-time work at sports and entertainment agency CSM, Angus still takes any opportunity to jump in the car for the familiar drive over the Blue Mountains.

“Even though we grew up in Lindfield, I think over the years we’ve all built a stronger connection with the bush, which probably comes from mum and dad and their upbringing in the country.

“We’ve become country people and this definitely feels like home now.” 

In June last year Angus had the chance to take most of his adopted Norths family ‘home’, when his former junior club Cowra hosted a Shute Shield fixture against Eastwood.

Malcolm and Hugh bundled the first and second grade squads on to a coach in Cowra on the Friday afternoon for the 40-minute drive to the farm, and the squads were treated to some country hospitality around a mid-winter bonfire.

“We were originally going to drive out on the morning of the match, but we suggested coming out here, and the boys loved the Friday night out on the farm,” recalls Angus.

“Mum had a whole lot of lasagne and apple crumble and, if you don’t leave the town you don’t really see that much, so getting out there in the fresh air and sitting around the fire was awesome.”

Norths lost an epic encounter the next day 29-22, but the bumper crowd in Cowra kept the bush experiences coming with fire pits on the field, boat races in the clubhouse, a lamb on the spit and a post-match function at the Imperial Hotel.

“They’re the best nights, when all your teammates, family and friends are around. I think everyone forgot about the fact we lost after an hour or so and just had a great time.”

But sharing his love for the bush with 50 of his teammates is a far cry from mid 2014 when Angus returned from a two-year stint with Cornish Pirates in the English Championship, this was after three seasons of Sydney grade footy with Sydney University and Easts.

“That was when I crashed,” he says.

“I played one more game for Easts when I got back, but that was 18 months of rugby in one hit.

“I got sick a number of times over there, just with colds and flus, and they kept giving me antibiotics which I know now is terrible for you and strips all that good bacteria (from your gut).

“Then I got a food poisoning parasite in Spain from a paella and it just snowballed really.”

After months of doctor’s appointments, tests and contradictory advice, Sinclair was eventually diagnosed with CFS, a complex illness affecting the central nervous system which can be triggered by anything from a viral infection to severe trauma.

Sufferers find everyday activities take an enormous toll on their health, such as a short stroll, coffee with a friend, getting the kids off to school or, in Sinclair’s case, half an hour working in the sheep yards.

“I was blood tested for everything under the sun, basically, and that’s pretty much how they diagnose chronic fatigue is they just rule out everything else,” he says.

“Finally they said; ‘you have chronic post-viral fatigue’, but there still wasn’t the answers there on how to get better.

“I definitely saw people who said; ‘no. you don’t need to change your diet, it will just improve over time’, and that’s a pretty hard thing to hear when you just want to get healthy again.” 

The Sinclairs embarked on a collective CFS cram session, learning all they could about the illness,  but the turning point came when Angus discovered The Lightning Process; a course developed by British osteopath Phil Parker to ‘reset the body’s health systems’ by teaching people how the brain and body influence each other, and how to use that information to enact radical change.

“One of the important realisations was that there is no quick fix, no magic pill that’s going to make you better again overnight,” he says.

“Diet was a huge thing for me because my gut health was terrible; I needed to physically fix what was going wrong and, once I fixed the physical symptoms, it was about breaking out of the pattern of being so stuffed.

“You’re just good at being tired, basically, and you’re worried about exercising or going out or over exerting because that’s what made you feel exhausted when you were in the worst of it.

“That barrier is really hard to overcome and I think that’s what a lot of people struggle with, but once I started doing the Lightning Process - it wasn’t instantaneous - it’s all about changing your thoughts and subconscious through a lot of mindfulness and visualisation and reassurance; ‘I did this much yesterday and I was all good, so I can do a bit more today’.”

The unpredictability of the illness makes regular commitments like work or study extremely challenging, and Angus was grateful to have the safety net of his family and the sanctuary of the farm as the ideal environment to heal.

“I truly believe The Lightning Process played a bit part in his recovery but mostly it was his sheer determination to get better, play rugby again and just do simple things like to go to the pub with mates,” says Prue. 

The first tentative steps back to rugby started in late 2015 at Norths, and Angus says the empathy of current Waratahs assistant and then Norths head coach Simon Cron was vital in his comeback.

“Simon tried to play through it during his time in Christchurch and had chronic night sweats and always had a cold, then he would just rest up for the entire off season, and go again,” says Sinclair.

“He said to me that he wished he’d just taken the time off to get better, heal himself and come back.

“The first week of training in 2016, I only did about 15 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday, but because he had such an understanding of it he just slowly built me up.

“Even the first trial game, I only played 15 minutes and wasn’t doing any weights or anything, just the on-field stuff. 

“Second trial game was 30 minutes, last trial game 60 minutes, and by round two or three I was playing 80 minutes.”

Miraculously, Sinclair played 30 first grade matches in 2016, culminating in the euphoria of that Shute Shield premiership, and Cron sent congratulations to each of the brothers on Saturday after their joint appearance against Eastwood.

In further signs of a full recovery, Sinclair also completed a Masters in Sports Event Management at UTS, making the Deans Merit List, has been coaching at his old school Shore - and says he has now found a healthy dietary balance.

“I still don’t eat gluten and dairy, and no added sugar. I cut out fruit when I was recovering, but I eat that again now, but definitely avoid added sugar, except for the occasional rum,” he says.

He also still practices mindfulness techniques, mainly before matches, which no longer draw odd looks from teammates at Norths.

“It’s just taking some time to visualise what I’ll be doing on the field, concentrate on breathing, relaxation,” he says.

“I’ll do it just before we start to warm up. I’ll get strapped, get ready and spend five or 10 minutes closing my eyes and visualising difference game scenarios.

“The first time I ever did mindfulness it was a guided visualisation and it would tell you to imagine you were various animals or in a different environment, and just as Hamish walked into the room it said; ‘now imagine you’re a radiant butterfly’.

“We both just lost it laughing - I’ve learned not to care too much about what other people think, but I haven’t listened to that one again.” 

Not only do the Sinclair siblings play together, but they also embark on a brotherly road trip every year, driving back down from the NT after Hamish finished a contract for a mustering company in 2016, and across western NSW, through the Barossa Valley and to Kangaroo Island a year later.

“Yeah, they’re my two best mates, I obviously have a lot of friends as well, but I’m closest to them and we do a lot together,” says Angus.

“We love getting out in the open spaces and exploring.

“Especially the last few years now we’re all playing footy at the same club, training together and have the same mates, it’s pretty special.”

After a stint at the Melbourne Rebels with his Norths premiership captain Will Miller in the second half of the 2017 Super Rugby season, Hugh Sinclair was named in the extended Waratahs squad in January this year, and Angus hasn’t written off his dream of also taking the step up from Shute Shield.

“Yeah, 100 per cent, I think playing against a lot of the guys that are on the fringe or in those bench positions when they come back into Shute Shield gives you a lot of confidence,” he says.

“You see them play and you think you’re not too far off where they are.”

But, for now, the focus is on Norths and capitalising on last week’s win over Eastwood and a 35-14 victory over 2018 grand finalists Warringah in round one.

“There’s actually a similar sort of feeling in the group at the moment to (2016), we’re very tight, it feels like there’s something special building,” says Angus.

Still only 21, Hamish already knows what winning a premiership at Norths feels like after being part of last year’s third grade triumph, and when he returned from that stint in the NT, Simon Cron told him ‘that brothers make rugby clubs’.

In the case of Norths, that’s most certainly true, and it could lead to even more Sinclair-driven success in 2019.

 

 

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