After suffering a serious eye injury in his breakout season as a full-time professional, Chris Hankinson is gearing up for the new season under new Wigan coach Adrian Lam.
Little more than a week prior to joining his hometown club, Hankinson, 24, was travelling to the Arndale in Manchester as a trainee electrician.
Playing for Swinton Lions part-time, the call up came after Wigan suffered multiple injuries and were in desperate need of a centre to join the ranks, an opportunity Chris ‘couldn’t allow to pass by’.
Following the news, he quit his job to go full-time for the club in July last year. Four days later, then head coach Shaun Wane offered him the the chance of a lifetime, making his Wigan debut against bitter rivals St Helens.
It was a fairy-tale start to his top flight rugby league career, one which he didn’t foresee materialising as he considers himself a ‘late-bloomer’.
He said: “It was one of the proudest moments in my life walking out at the DW in front of my family. It’s every lads dream to play the Wigan v Saints derby for your debut, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.
After positive feedback from the coaching staff and a good start to his life at Wigan, Hankinson was in the team the following week to face Catalan, scoring his first try for the club.
However, minutes later he went into a tackle that almost changed his life.
After clashing heads with teammate Thomas Leuluai – the full-force being taken by his eye – Hankinson was forced off in only his second appearance for the club.
The initial assessment wasn’t great as doctors could not identify the injury after the game as his eye was so swollen and dilated. Further medical scans, organised by club doctor, Dr Chris Brooks, confirmed it was a detached retina.
The injury all but ended his season as surgery was required to save his sight.
However, Hankinson, who was unable to train, drive or run, admitted he was fortunate to have signed for Wigan before sustaining such a serious injury.
“The news came down on me like a ton of bricks, I couldn’t believe it was happening. To be told my season’s over was heartbreaking, it can take you to some very low places.
“I was quite lucky in the fact that three weeks before I was part time for Swinton and didn’t have the private care and insurance that Wigan had to offer.
“Looking back, he could have saved my sight, I was not aware my retina was slowly peeling away.
“My good eye was compensating for my loss of vision. There would be a shadow starting to form which without the proper treatment could lead to a complete loss of vision. The longer left untreated, the less chance of regaining vision.”
Dr Brooks, a cranial specialist with a reputation for being the best in the league, said: “Think of it like wallpaper, there’s a layer of skin over your eyeball that attracts the light that allows you to see, it was like wallpaper peeling from a wall which is why Chris experienced a dark corner in his vision.”
The road to Recovery
Once Hankinson met with the surgeons they discovered his eye required immediate surgery, six hours later he was under the knife.
The operation was successful, but due to the trauma, he lost 10% of the vision in his right-eye. After the operation he was ordered to undertake no physical activity other than walking for four weeks.
Unable to train for so long meant Hankinson had to resort to unorthodox methods of keeping busy during his rehabilitation process.
The English centre admitted the support from his family and the club was vital in ensuring he wasn’t causing himself further damage physically or mentally.
“I was ringing everybody who had a dog if I could walk them just to keep busy,” he said.
“My family, girlfriend and the club were really supportive, you don’t understand what they do for you outside of rugby, there’s a lot of time outside of training where that support is vital. Physically the staff were great in ensuring I wasn’t pushing myself too hard.”
Performance Director for Wigan, Mark Bitcon, was the first to show Chris around their training ground in Orrell. He understands the frustrations players can have being ruled out for the season.
“As for returning, it’s about getting back on the horse. Gradually build up those interactions with his teammates, using shields, pads and different methods of training to build that impact back into his training,” he said.
Players can cause further damage without proper guidance, and it can be difficult managing a serious injury but Mark admitted it’s about setting realistic targets.
“There have been moments were we had to drag him off the pitch, he will be going through a graded return of progression based on contact and the pressure he would feel in his eye. Chris wanted to play in the Grand Final but we both understood it’s not a case of throwing him in an ocean and expecting him to swim,” he added.
Wigan beat rivals Warrington12-4 in last year’s emotional Grand Final win, which was Wane’s farewell game at the club.
Hankinson was cleared by the specialist at the end of last season and resumed light training, but understands his focus needs to be on being ready for this season.
“It’s all about preparing myself for a tough pre-season now, I would always put myself forward to feature 100% or not and under new coach Adrian Lam, there will be competition for places.
“Personally my focus is on stepping up my road to recovery and being ready for the coming season.”
Athletes such as Sugar Ray Leonard have been forced to retire from a similar injury. Being one tackle away from retirement could deter some, but just like his phenomenal start to Warrior life, he’s taking it in his stride.
We asked the hard-hitting centre whether he was worried about receiving a tackle that could potentially end his career at any moment.
He insisted: “That’s the risk of the game, if I ever get a knock to the head, there’s a slight chance it could come away again when that first hit comes.
“I’ll be keeping my eye out for that first hit and I’m looking forward to it.”