ABBOTSFORD — He never doubted he’d get another chance to pull jersey No. 10 back on, and then like any fly half worth his salt, dig those cleats into the muddy pitch and sell deception to every would-be tackler.
Yet as the B.C. boys high school rugby championships get set to begin a four-day run Wednesday at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium, South Delta’s Niall Cummins has not only gotten his old number back, he’s repping it in ways which do more than suggest that his character, his toughness and his passion for the game sit at the very top of the 10-scale.
Regardless, if you had been standing alongside myself or any of the other concerned players, coaches and fans back on April 10 of 2018 at the rugby field at South Delta Secondary School, you’d be excused for thinking any kind of triumphant return was beyond wishful thinking.
Just minutes into an early-season Fraser Valley Tier 1 Triple A match between Tsawwassen’s host Sun Devils and Abbotsford’s visiting Robert Bateman Timberwolves, Cummins, the home team’s talented but slight then-Grade 11 fly half, lay near the field’s far sideline, surrounded by coaches and teammates who knew they were powerless to reverse his pain.
One moment, the 5-foot-7, 140-pound Cummins, who is equally effective at scrum half, had left his feet to tackle an opposition player, and then the next he found himself coming back to the ground, simultaneously absorbing the force of back-to-back hits with no give in either of his legs, each of which had been subsequently pinned beneath him in the melee.
“That’s when the ‘pops’ came,” Cummins remembered earlier this month. “I’m having flashbacks just thinking about it.”
The end result?
A snapped tibia in his left leg, and a torn ACL in his right knee.
South Delta won that game 22-7 yet they did it with heavy hearts.
Emergency vehicles did not arrive on the scene for about an hour, and due to the extent and severity of his injuries, Cummins could not move.
“At the first moment it happened, because I felt the snap of the leg, first, then the pop in the knee… I knew exactly what had happened,” Cummins begins, “so the first couple of seconds was me just settling that into my head.
“It was extremely painful, don’t get me wrong, but it was more that I couldn’t roll around in pain. I had to stay stationary and just dig my hands into the ground. That was my only pain reliever.”
Sun Devils’ head coach Spencer Baines remembers the day so vividly, remembers the sensation of wanting his player to receive medical attention as soon as humanly possible, yet remaining powerless over a stretch in which the day’s clock just seemed to stop.
“Your concern is not rugby anymore,” Baines says. “You are worried. For your friend. Your player. Your son. In hindsight, in an ironic way, it brought us all together through a challenging time.”
It wasn’t too soon after, down the season’s stretch drive especially, that Cummins was back making an impact. Unable to play, he dragged his braced-up knee along the sidelines and cheered for all he was worth.
And in the end, South Delta won the B.C. Tier 1 Triple-A rugby championship, the first of its kind in school history.
“The good thing was that I was going to have a chance to come back in my senior year and play some South Delta ball again,” said Cummins.
THE HEARTBEAT OF HIS TEAM
From one season to the next, the dynamic has shifted,
Last season, the Sun Devils’ were still untested at the very top end of the tier, yet its 35-22 win in the B.C. Triple A title match against Robert Bateman changed all of that.
This season, however, after dominating throughout the majority of the campaign, an injury bug which at one stage had taken out a full one-third of the first XV, led to back-to-back losses to Yale and then R.E. Mountain at the Fraser Valley championships.
That means that South Delta will go in at No. 4 in the eight-team Triple A Tier 1 bracket, and be prepared to get all they can handle in their opener against No. 5 Kelowna.
Only if they survive the Owls would the Sun Devils get to the semifinals and a likely date with No. 1 seed Earl Marriott, the Surrey power which had competed as a Premier League team through the course of the regular season.
Yet as they showed last season, they have a good track record of response to adversity.
Whatever happens, however, Baines says you simply can’t put a price on having someone like Niall Cummins representing your program.
“It shows you how special this game is and the draw that it has,” Baines begins. “Even when you go through something like that, to want to be back and to want to be a part of what happened last year? We want that again, and he wants it more than anybody, and I think that gets everyone wanting to do the same for the team. It inspires everyone.”
“…THIS IS IN MY BLOOD”
If you’ve watched Niall Cummins in action this season, it seems like he is back better than ever.
Yet in reality, he never really left.
“His commitment was literally unwavering with what happened,” Baines says, “and he’s worked his butt off to get healthy again. Everybody is just thrilled to have him back. Everybody loves Niall.”
In the Sun Devils’ Fraser Valley semifinals loss to Yale, he was truly a conductor for South Delta, not only selling his fakes and flashing dynamic vision to all parts of the field, but playing with the kind of courage that suggests he never even had to get back on the comeback trail.
Yet as his dad Barry reminds, Cummins also suffered a broken leg back in his community football days in South Delta.
All of that does nothing but confirm that pound for pound, he might just be the toughest kid in B.C. high school sports’ entire graduating Class of 2019.
“There was never a doubt that I wanted to come back,” Niall Cummins says. “I have been playing since I was a little kid. So watching the boys in the provincials last year was gut wrenching because I couldn’t get on the field. But then seeing their dedication and then seeing them win? I couldn’t have been prouder.
“This is my passion. This is in my blood.”
If you’re reading this story or viewing these photos on any website other than one belonging to a university athletic department, it has been taken without appropriate permission. In these challenging times, true journalism will survive only through your dedicated support and loyalty. VarsityLetters.ca and all of its exclusive content has been created to serve B.C.’s high school and university sports community with hard work, integrity and respect. Feel free to drop us a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.