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From a coma to Hong Kong 7s: The 'unbelievable' Abi Burton story

By Liam Heagney
Great Britain 7s player Abi Burton in Hong Kong

The HSBC SVNS Series is a melting pot of inspiring stories from a whole host of different backgrounds. For instance, Brazilian playmaker Raquel Kochhann, a two-time Olympian, was recently featured on RugbyPass TV telling her motivating account about her successful recovery from breast cancer to playing for his country again.

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She is not alone in beating the odds with Great Britain player Abi Burton another example of a player going from fighting for life to starring back out on the rugby field. It was spring 2022 when the now 24-year-old Tokyo Olympian was in crisis.

Buton was having seizures and spent 25 days wrongly sectioned with a misdiagnosis. Eventually, she was diagnosed with autoimmune MDA receptor encephalitis, an illness where the body mistakenly attacks the brain.

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Her agitated state resulted in her being placed in a medically induced 28-day coma. Two years later, she had just completed a joyous walk around the stadium perimeter with his GB teammates when she stopped by the Hong Kong Stadium tunnel to chat with RugbyPass.

“Oh God, I must be over 100 now,” she chuckled when asked what her selfie count was after her team’s ninth-place play-off win over Brazil was followed by a delightful mingling session with fans, including those decked out in fancy dress on from the famed South Stand.

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“Everybody wanted to support us and we love it. We love the support. That is what matters to us the most. It’s amazing. You don’t get to experience anything like this wherever you go. Probably the only similar one is Dubai but it’s not as big as that. It’s super special. It’s the last one that is going to be here so we just made sure we took everything in.”

No one would begrudge Burton from taking everything in given her onerous sacrifice to make it back to rugby, a story that is now the subject of a HSBC documentary that will soon premiere. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to do it without my teammates, without my family – they are a really big contributing factor for me to be able to get better.

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“You see a lot of people who have this illness who can’t really ever walk or talk properly again and they have to have family members look after them for the rest of their lives, but I was really lucky that a year on I was sat in the stands cheering the girls on and a year on I am now playing international rugby again.

“It’s unbelievable and just the belief from the girls thinking I could still do it, that’s what kept me going because there were a lot of times where I thought this was too big of a mountain for me to climb.

“You really just go down to rock bottom physically and mentally so without the support of them rallying around me I probably wouldn’t have been able to come back and then when I finally got named on that team sheet it was a super special moment.

“I was diagnosed with a rare brain illness that affects one in 1.6million people. It can come from anything. It can come from a bite; it can be autoimmune, and it can affect anybody and it’s really important for me to get that message out there because I was undiagnosed.

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“I really struggled, and I nearly lost my life because I was undiagnosed and the fact I have this platform now to be able to share with people, I need to be able to do that and I need to be able to spread awareness. It’s really important that no matter what struggles me and my family went through that I can talk about it and share it.

“When I think about it I’m basically repeating everything that I have been told from my mum and my dad because I actually don’t remember that time at all. The first thing I remember is waking up from the coma and not really having a clue what had happened.

“But I have a good support network around me when sometimes I do struggle still and having them around me really helps me so it allows me to be able to share my story.”

What is her story’s legacy? “That this is a new version of me, I don’t have to be like the old version. A lot of things happened and I don’t have to try and be Burty. I’m Burty 2.0 now, so that’s what is what my message is.”

Back to the rugby. Brazil scoring a late try last Saturday cost Great Britain quarter-final qualification despite their 17-12 win, but Sunday’s 14-5 success in the ninth-place decider has kept Burton’s eighth-place team two points clear of the ninth-placed Brazilians on the HSBC SVNS Series table heading into the final leg in Singapore before the Madrid Grand Final.

“It’s massively important for the standings, for our confidence moving forward, especially if we come up against them, we know that we have got two really good games under our belt and they ain’t pretty so we know we can grind out two really good wins, so it is massively important,” figured Burton.

“The scoreline was a factor on Saturday; we knew how much we needed to beat them by to get into the quarter-finals. Sunday, the main focus was we just needed to beat them, we needed to stay ahead of them because if we didn’t we would be going to Singapore on the same points. If we did beat them we’re two points up, so we always knew the context of the game going into it.

“We will take a mix from Hong Kong. In our first two games against New Zealand and France, we feel like we could have done better to put ourselves into a position to get to the quarter-finals, but also there are loads of positives to take from the weekend with grinding out two really, really great wins against Brazil, beating South Africa and just being able to move forward.”

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Jon 23 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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