WHEN Devon Henson had a stroke-like crisis at just 18, the muscular lock now dominating for Bond University was told he should never play rugby again.
He didn’t play the game he loved for six years which makes his run-on role at Ballymore on Sunday one of the most remarkable comeback stories of 2020.
Taking on Easts in the preliminary final of the AllSports Physiotherapy Hospital Challenge Cup was nowhere on his radar when he arrived on the Gold Coast from South Africa in January.
He’d arrived to use his studies in sports psychology and business management to forge a better life with partner Abigail Greenwood, not to lace on his footy boots.
A chance recommendation that Bond Uni was the best rugby club on the coast was a spin-off to chatting to clients when he was working in a F45 Training gym.
“Ending up at Bond came about by chance and even to be playing rugby again at a high level is something I never imagined,” Henson, 24, said.
Everyone was curious about where Henson had suddenly sprung from such was the way he threw his 117kg frame into last Sunday’s 32-27 upset of GPS in the semi-finals.
He finished off a rolling maul try with a spearing surge to the line, grabbed a key steal at the breakdown, produced turnover tackles and had a strong physical presence.
Playful teammates have also nicknamed him “Calum von Moger” as a nod to the Australian bodybuilder such is his chiselled 1.94m physique.
The Johannesburg-born Henson, who spent two years of his childhood in Perth, was playing for his school side in Cape Town in 2014 when an accidental knock changed his life.
“I was tackling someone and his head came up and cracked me on the jaw,” Henson said.
“I felt it as a bit of a head knock but carried on, scored a try and finished the game.
“It was only after the game that my left hand started going numb and then my left arm, tongue and left side too.” He collapsed.
By the time his initial visit to hospital, monitoring for more than a week in intensive care and multiple scans were complete, doctors could fully outline the issue.
“I sustained a Carotid Artery Dissection (CAD) which is like having a stroke,”
Henson said of a tear to the wall of the artery and a narrowing of the vessel.
“My doctor told me, if I was his son, I’d never get on the field again but it was up to me.”
It was tough news to deal with for a youngster who had earned a Blue Bulls Under-19s squad contract in Pretoria.
His studies and work in the fitness industry were part of a major U-turn before a check-up in 2018.
“More scans and tests showed my blood flow at 100 per cent and my body had fully repaired from the stroke which the doctor said was a bit freakish,” Henson said.
His university studies still took precedence until his mind wandered to rugby when he landed on the Gold Coast.
“I hadn’t played for six years so 100 per cent I was more nervous for my comeback game in third grade than I will be for this preliminary final on Sunday,” Henson said.
“My body felt like it had been in a car crash after that first game back in thirds but it was that nice sore we all live for as footballers.
“I can’t fully explain but to be back part of a cohesive team with a good group of guys is a great feeling.
“I scrum beside (Reds lock) Angus Blyth and he’s always open to all my questions and helping me.
“I know the history that this is Bond’s first time in finals and we’ve not come this far to only come this far.”
Bond Uni coach Grant Anderson has done a wonderful job of pulling the players together with a common goal and their “unbreakable bond” mantra.
Losing headgeared flyer Rhian Stowers (knee) for Sunday’s sudden-death match is a blow but the return of hard-on-the-ball flanker Connor Pritchard from suspension is a major plus.
“We freed ourselves from worry for the semi-final because all the pressure was on GPS and it’s the same on Sunday with all the pressure on Easts,” Anderson said.
Incredibly, Easts have nine teams in this week’s preliminary finals and a tenth, the women’s side, are already into the grand final.
Leader Ben Mowen, nursing eight stitches in a brow cut from the semi-finals, is adamant the Tigers can lift after a flat 37-19 loss to University of Queensland.
“It was probably the poorest performance we’ve put together all year,” Mowen said.
“Some of that is on me and managing the ambience because we may have been too relaxed pre-game.
“We’ll get our mentality right in the warm-up and the start of the game on Sunday.”
Sunday at Ballymore
Easts v Bond University, 3.30pm (AEST)