This is the story of how England went from perennial under-performers to World Champions in one year. It’s a story about why England changed their scrum and then won back-to-back Six Nations titles for the first time since 1995
Claudia MacDonald is a partner at England Rugby. She has been involved in the game for over 20 years and has helped to develop the sport in England.
Claudia MacDonald, an England scrum-half, was moved to tears by the possibility of not playing rugby for four weeks back in November.
She’s had to come to grips with missing the Red Roses’ World Cup campaign, losing her professional rugby status, and maybe having to retire from the sport entirely since then.
MacDonald had a neck injury while practicing for England’s fall internationals towards the end of 2021.
The 26-year-old was pushed backwards after receiving the ball from a line-out. Her head was smashed against her chest, and she didn’t realize how serious the damage was at first.
MacDonald began in a record victory over world champions New Zealand at the end of October, thinking it was a soft-tissue injury.
The following week, she was on the bench as England defeated the Black Ferns for the second time, and then scored two tries in a triumph against Canada.
MacDonald thought she was at the top of her game, but it was her final match.
‘Some days I’m furious, and other days I’m depressed.’
MacDonald had flown with England to the team hotel before their last fall Test against the United States, despite experiencing “scary” sensations along the left side of her body.
The Red Roses medical staff advised her that she required an MRI and would be out for about a month.
“It was November at the time, and I figured I wouldn’t be playing for four weeks after playing some of the finest rugby I’d ever played – all I wanted to do was play rugby,” MacDonald tells Sport.
“Even back then, I recall sobbing at the possibility of not being able to play for four weeks.”
Following the scan, MacDonald was informed that she would be unable to play in Wasps’ historic match versus Harlequins at Twickenham just after Christmas. She expected to be back on the field in January.
This cycle of preparing to return, but being unable to do so, repeated again every three to four weeks until physicians realized the damage would take considerably longer to heal.
MacDonald has been warned that she may recover in 12-18 months or not at all due to an acute prolapsed disc and another bulging disc.
Wasps have resumed non-contact training with the versatile back, who can also play on the wing, but the injury’s uncertainty “runs around your head,” he adds.
“It knocks you for six some days,” she says.
“Some days I’m very unhappy about it, some days I’m furious about it, other days I’m in denial and still believe I can play and my neck is alright, particularly when I’m sprinting about in training.”
“On other days, I may become enthusiastic and anticipate what comes next. It’s all over the place, to be honest.”
The choice to forego surgery was a “difficult” one.
Several surgeons provided MacDonald with alternatives. The first predicted that she would need two operations, the second of which would put an end to her rugby career.
According to the last, the safest and best solution for a person, not just a rugby player, was to avoid surgery altogether.
That would imply that she would have to wait for her neck to heal on its own before returning to rugby, which may never happen.
With a full-time England contract, the Red Roses’ current Six Nations campaign, and the World Cup in October all on the line, refusing surgery would also mean giving up her full-time England contract, the Red Roses’ current Six Nations campaign, and the World Cup in October.
She says, “I made the choice not to undergo surgery.”
“I was aware of the choice I was making. I was clearly saying my goodbyes to the Six Nations, the World Cup, and maybe rugby as a whole.
“It was a difficult choice to make, but it’s done now.”
‘At a fork in the road,’ as a job shift looms
MacDonald is effectively jobless without the contract. England has provided her psychological help, and she is unconcerned about having to give up her contract since it is meant to maintain the Red Roses’ domination at the top of the international game.
“I completely understand that resources are scarce,” she adds.
“The contracts are in place to help the ladies who will be competing in the World Cup. That is why England is where it is in terms of growth and advancement today.”
MacDonald would have anticipated to be a part of England’s recent Women’s Six Nations triumph.
Instead, she’s going to job interviews because, although she says she’d “want to be a professional rugby player for the rest of my life,” MacDonald recognizes it may no longer be realistic.
She’s “at a fork in the road.”
“I have to figure out now how I can continue to improve as a rugby player while working on what will be a new career – I’m not sure what it will be called,” MacDonald says.
“I’m thinking about removing myself completely and doing something different. I’m not sure where it will take me.”