Cornell du Preez has returned to rugby after a harrowing neck injury.
CNN  — 

The first wave of panic came as Cornell du Preez struggled to breathe. The second came as he tried to speak, only for no words to come out.

The powerful number eight vividly recalls the series of events that unfolded on September 1 last year, just five minutes into his club debut with English Premiership side Worcester Warriors.

After taking a tackle, du Preez’s throat landed heavily on opponent Joe Launchbury’s knee. The South African-born forward would later learn that he had fractured his larynx, a rare and serious injury in its own right.

His initial reaction was one of alarm.

“It’s really weird to explain,” the 28-year-old Scotland international tells CNN. “It wasn’t painful or anything, it was just the fact that I couldn’t breathe. It was very freakish because I was trying to breathe and breathe but nothing was coming through.

“Obviously you start panicking at that point. I tried to calm myself down because I knew the more you panic the worse it gets and I ran to the side of the field to the doctor and I tried to explain to him that I can’t breathe, but as I tried to no voice was coming out.”

After adrenaline injections to ease the swelling around his neck, du Preez was whisked off to hospital. Breathing became easier, but the following morning the swelling proved too much and he underwent an emergency tracheostomy – a procedure that involves inserting a tube down the windpipe to help take in air.

What unraveled over the next number of months was as much a mental ordeal for du Preez as it was physical.

Du Preez flies into a tackle against Harlequins.

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Bed-bound in hospital, his girlfriend traveled from Worcester to Birmingham to see him each day. But unable to speak for the first six or seven weeks, he was, by his own admission, not very good company – communicating only with pen and paper.

He read books and played Fortnite to pass the hours, and over time made a remarkable recovery, putting together a string of games since returning to action at the end of March.

“It’s just been enjoyable,” says du Preez. “You take things for granted sometimes and when you have that opportunity again you give everything to be back and it’s a pleasure being back really.

“As soon as it happened and a couple of weeks after that I initially thought I would never be able to play again. The doctors weren’t very optimistic about it because at the time I was worried about breathing, rather than speaking.”

The months off gave du Preez time to fix a niggling ankle injury and get fighting fit again in the gym. But the recovery also flicked a mindset switch.

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“It gives you a bit of perspective of how short your career is and that you have to make the most of it,” he explains.

“Like with any other job, you have days when you’re not so keen to go train, your body’s tired and sore. But nowadays when I wake up I just tell myself that it’s going to be a great day and I’ve got this opportunity to go again.

“It’s almost like something I needed in my life to make me aware of how privileged I am to be able to play this game.”

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‘A blessing’

At six foot four inches and 111 kg, du Preez’s game is built around physicality – strong running, powerful collisions, and big tackles. You might think a fractured larynx would make him think twice when he charges into defenders, but not a bit of it.

“I’d probably say I’m even more confident than I was,” says du Preez. “I got quite strong when I was away for so long.

“After you do your first contact session you ease into the first one or two tackles, but after that you literally just forget about it and play rugby. It’s all just a bit of a memory so I never really think about it anymore to be honest.”

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Du Preez’s voice is still husky following the operation – that might take months or years to return to normal – and he bears a large red scar at the base of his neck. But otherwise the horrific injury is, as he says himself, a “memory.”

Now thoughts can turn to the future. Du Preez, who was born in Port Elizabeth in South Africa, has six caps for Scotland having qualified on residency grounds from the five years he spent playing in Edinburgh. The World Cup gets underway later this year – 12 months on from when he was confined to the hospital ward.

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“We’ll see what happens. Obviously I would like to be involved if I get the opportunity,” said du Preez.

“Worcester have looked after me so well and my loyalties are there at the moment and I’ll try and perform as best as I can for them. If it happens, great, and if not I’m just happy to be back playing rugby. At the back of my mind that is a goal, and if I perform well I might be in with a chance so who knows.

“[Scotland coach] Gregor Townsend messaged me a couple of times to see how things were going and to take my time and obviously when I got back to my first game he said good luck and that he was looking forward to seeing me out there.”

Du Preez in action for Scotland against Samoa in 2017.

But for now, it’s all about du Preez’s renewed love of the game.

“At the moment I’m feeling pretty good to be honest,” he says. “It’s a bit of a blessing to just be playing.”