'The injuries I had, people think of them as career-ending': All Blacks Sevens' new recruit spent 18 months on the sidelines
In late 2018, having undergone his fourth major surgery in a little over a year, Moses Leo could have been forgiven for turning his back on his dreams of being a professional rugby player.
Because for 18 months, Leo was unable to take the field and play the game he loved, instead having to watch and wait, just hoping that when he was finally fit and ready to go, he would find himself with an opportunity to prove that he had what it takes to play rugby at the highest level.
It’s a good thing that Leo didn’t give up on his dream, because the promising 23-year-old has finally cracked the big leagues, earning selection in the first New Zealand national sevens squad for 2021.
The troubles started back in 2016 when, during a club rugby match for Takapuna, Leo found himself in the path of a rampaging prop who had broken through the first line of defence.
“It wasn’t the best sight to see,” Leo recalled, “but it tests the old character when you’re out there.
“I turned to tackle him but my arm got caught up above my head. He fell forward over me and pushed my arm back past the point it’s supposed to go and it just popped out. It wasn’t too painful, there weren’t any nerves or anything trapped underneath, thankfully, so it popped back in pretty easy.”
The shoulder didn’t trouble Leo much following the game, but three months down the track it popped back out – and the problems continued from there.
“After that [second dislocation], it kind of set me on a spiral,” Leo said. “I had a bunch of dislocations but I just learned to play with it. I learned how to put it back in while in the middle of a game and I got pretty good at hiding when it happened.
It wasn’t until 2017, almost a year later, that Leo finally made the decision to get surgery on the troubled shoulder.
“I got to the end of the 2016 club season, playing prems, and I was having a lot of issues already. But then I played a full sevens season on it and that was a lot of one-on-one tackling – two or three times per game, and you’d play three or four games a day.
“I trialled for Samoa U20s and then I had an injury assessment and they asked if I had surgery planned for my shoulder. I told them it was planned for the end of the year and that sort of took me out of the equation.
“A lot of people thought it was a bit of a risk having me in the team and that I was going to be more of a liability than an asset – and it wasn’t that nice to be looked at like that.
“I didn’t want to be a liability, and I knew that I had to sort it out if I wanted to go further with my rugby.”
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Surgery was all booked in for immediately after the 2017 club finals but Leo’s bad fortune was set to continue.
“A week before my shoulder surgery was planned, playing in the club semi-finals, someone fell on the outside of my ankle in a ruck and I heard a snap, which was my ankle breaking.
“So between that and my shoulder surgery, I was in a moon boot and a sling for pretty much 8 weeks. It was pretty interesting, especially having stairs in the house. I had to plan my trips downstairs because I knew I wasn’t going to be heading back up any time soon.
“That stopped me from keeping my legs ticking over. I had one crutch, one leg and one arm. It was a bit rough but it was all good, I just had to get through it.”
It wasn’t until three months following surgery that Leo was able to do any meaningful rugby-related exercises and start preparing again for the new club season. Just as the 2018 pre-season was getting underway, however, a bridge jump gone wrong left Leo needing surgery on his ACL. Things then went from bad to worse.
“Four weeks after my ACL surgery, I was just out walking and I slipped over, fell straight on top of my kneecap and it shattered,” said Leo. “We went straight to the hospital and they asked me if I’d always had a split in my kneecap – definitely not that I’d ever known of. I was on some pretty heavy painkillers and I was in hospital for just over a week.”
Come 2019, when Leo was finally ready to return to the field once more, and 18 months had passed since he had last played a competitive game of rugby and undergone his shoulder surgery.
Somewhat understandably, friends and family of the 23-year-old had questioned whether he would be willing to put his body on the line once more – but Leo had zero reservations.
“It was a long break but I think it helped me clarify what I really wanted and it allowed me to see the bigger picture,” Leo said of his one-and-a-half-year absence.
“I had a lot of people asking me what I was going to do now, thinking rugby wasn’t an option. The injuries I had, people think of them as career-ending injuries. Having been out of the game for so long, they just assumed I wouldn’t go back or I’d be scared of injuring myself again.
“My time away from the game helped me set me up and gave me a plan for the future and get some work experience – but it also made me hungrier. I knew what I wanted and despite the physical trauma that my body’s been through, I never lost sight of wanting to be a professional player. Rugby always calls me back.”
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Leo had no fears going into his first game of rugby following the extended break, part-way through the 2019 club season, that his body wouldn’t hold up. Instead, he was overwhelmed with excitement – and it’s been relatively smooth sailing since.
“I took my first contact and I was just laughing the whole time I had the ball in my hand. It was such a good feeling.
“For 2019, I just wanted to complete the season and get as much game time as possible. We only played four more games so I took it upon myself to play some league and get some contact under my belt. That was fun and it just made me love the game even more, to get back into it.”
It’s been a whirlwind ride for Leo ever since.
The centre-cum-wing played a full season with Takapuna in 2020 (or as full a season as was possible due to COVID-19) and was selected for the North Harbour development side. Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, a 67-cap All Blacks Sevens star, was a teammate of Leo’s at Harbour and put in a good word for the young star with the national coaches, which saw Leo invited to play at the Ignite 7s.
From there, Leo starred alongside the likes of Tim Mikkelson and Joe Webber for the Bolt selection, with the team emerging as the Ignite champions, and his form was rewarded with a coveted All Blacks Sevens contract.
“I don’t know if it’s luck or if someone’s watching over me, but I’m truly grateful,” Leo said. “The stars aligned and everything that’s happened has helped me get to where I am.”
While many would have given up following set-back after set-back, Moses Leo always remained confident that better days were ahead of him. That optimism has finally been rewarded, and the New Zealand sevens team will be the beneficiaries of the commitment, mental fortitude and talent that their new recruit possesses in spades.
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