Only two years ago, Niall Saunders was told by the best doctors in the world, the worst possible news, his lifelong dream of being a professional rugby player was over. A battery of medical tests confirmed a rare and severe blood disorder that would prevent him from ever playing rugby again.
Today, Niall is a professional rugby player for Harlequins and rose to the glory of representing Ireland in front of 15,000 people at the AGL stadium in the Junior World Cup final.
Niall thanks his dad, Rob Saunders, for the support and help that got Niall through the disorder and meant he could play rugby again.
He said: ‘When I got told I’d never play again in the hospital, it was the worst feeling in the world. Chatting outside in the garden with my Dad welling up, but he kept saying we’ll beat this, we’ll beat this.’
‘My family are all just desperate for me to succeed and he hugged me and cried in my arms, it hurt him just as much as it hurt me.’
Niall finds his blood disorder tough to talk about but has his family to thank, who have been there every step of the way.
His Dad acts as the punching bag, as him and Niall are ‘two pees in a pod’ and he calms him down every time he’s stressed. His Mum takes him to every doctor’s appointment and has arranged for over 13 doctors to see him since his diagnosis.
Niall said: ‘I was diagnosed with ITB at a young age, which means I don’t clot blood very well. All it would take for me to not get back up again would be a nasty head knock.
‘It was mentally tough to get my head around, that I’d never play rugby ever again. I felt frustrated with the doctors because I felt they didn’t know me.’
‘If I can help someone else who’s been through what I’ve been through that would be amazing.’
After three months of being at Harlequins, Niall lost his passion for rugby completely, because he wasn’t allowed to be involved in the contact training sessions and just did running and lifting all day.
He said: ‘For four months I fell into depression, I bottled all my emotions up and wouldn’t speak to anyone. I just put the blinds down and I couldn’t do anything.
‘After a meeting with John Kingston, I decided I was going to terminate my contract at Quins to try and recover from this depression I was suffering.
‘It had been an emotional rollercoaster, but my Dad gave me the best advice ever, as he told me ‘find a way, that’s what winners do’’.
That wisdom gave Niall the motivation to beat the blood disorder and play the sport that means so much to him.
Niall had two months of doing nothing but training, with his goal solely set on getting another professional rugby contract.
It wasn’t easy for Niall as he’d lost the speed of the game from being outside rugby for a while but his determination and help from personal trainer Tom Bliss, was vital to being where he is today.
He said: ‘I’m obsessed with being the best. My ambition is to be the number one 9 and go on a British and Irish Lions tour. If you’re not going to be the best, what’s the point in even trying.
‘When I went into that dark place, my competitive nature got me out of it. Sometimes I go too far and become a sore loser, but I just want to be the best and it’s very noticeable.’
In December 2017, Niall received the best news possible. After years of frustration and setback, the doctors told him he was finally cured.
Niall doesn’t know where he’d be without his close friends and family, supporting him through this emotional rollercoaster he’s been on, but he is thankful for all their love and support.
Niall’s dad, Rob Saunders played for Ireland himself, winning 12 caps and there’s a running joke in the family of who’s going to be the more successful rugby player in the household, with Niall’s aspirations set on 13 caps, to break his dad’s record.
Evidently, the emotional support Niall received from his father was vital, helping him to overcome a career stopping illness and giving him the motivation to push on through when the future looked bleak.
As well as his dad Rob, Niall learned a lot from Jim Staples, who lived two doors down from him. Niall said: ‘I learned so much from Jim, he and my Dad made me complete at least 50 passes a day and that made me into the player I am today.’
Nowadays, Niall learns from his coaches and teammates but watches as much rugby as possible. He said: ‘I take each day by day. I learn a lot working with my team mate, Danny Care, and I watch a lot of 9’s like Conor Murray, TJ Peranara, Aaron Smith etc. I go to as many games as possible with Danny and Paul Gaustard.
‘I take training really seriously so I can hone my skills. I do extra hours to gain understanding and try to be the best. Getting into these habits and learning and honing skills, while always studying the game makes me a much better player.’
Niall looks up to his club and former England captain Chris Robshaw, who inspires him to be the best. He said: ‘Chris works constantly, his dedication is why he’s where he is. He’s so down to earth and approachable and is a great captain, with a ‘first in, last man out’ mentality. He’ll get things wrong but won’t stop until it’s right. It’s easy to see why he’s been capped so many times and we all love him here because of how much of a loyal Quin he is. I’ve learnt so much from him and he’s helped my development massively.’
Niall has three pieces of advice for up and coming rugby players looking to go pro. He says: ‘One, be an absolute sponge, you can never stop learning from advice and watching rugby. Two, learn and practice the core skills. Three, aspire to be the best.
‘Talent can only take you so far, the more you study the better you can be. You can never learn too much.’
Niall has had an interesting career; being bit by his cat at 12 years old before his Harlequins trial and his hand blowing up like a balloon, having to pass and tackle one handed but still getting in, to battling and driving over his blood disorder, to playing at a Junior World Cup to now playing professionally for Harlequins. It’s fair to say, Niall Saunders should be seen as an inspiration to all.
Written by Ben Jaycock