Mike Ballard has vowed to be as big a presence at Abu Dhabi Harlequins as he was as a player when he returns to the UAE, following his trip of a lifetime to the Rugby World Cup.
Ballard remains in a wheelchair following the horrific spinal injury he suffered playing for Quins in the West Asia Champion Cup final on April 4, 2014.
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It is a day the 30-year-old will never forget, but having completed his rehabilitation at home in Michigan he is set to return to the capital at the end of the year. And his passion for rugby burns as brightly as ever.
Indeed, it was on display last month as he and tour operator Ed Lewsey sped around the south west of England and Wales taking in World Cup games in Brighton, Cardiff and Twickenham.
Ballard described the trip as “one last little hurrah before I go back into the working world” after Wales’ dramatic win over England.
“A couple of the coaches out there have younger kids, and I’ve worked with the younger kids [so, I can help there],” he added of his potential return to Quins in a coaching capacity.
“Any game day type of thing, anything I can do with the ones and the two and the vets, there’s always something going on and stuff to do. I’ll be out there probably more than I was before.”
Lewsey, a team-mate at Quins and co-founder of the Mike Ballard Foundation, kept the pair busy during their time in the UK.
Ballard spent time with USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville having watched the Eagles’ match with Samoa, while an altogether unplanned stop at Richmond en route to Twickenham resulted in a meeting with Wales legend Derek Quinnell.
The breathless tour, meanwhile, also took in stops at Exeter’s Sandy Park, a Devon school, where the American gave a talk to pupils, the Royal Marines’ Commando training centre in Lympstone, where he trained, and Bisham Abbey, where he spoke with other people who have suffered similar injuries.
As he pondered his whistle-stop week under Twickenham’s East Stand, the 30-year-old’s smile was infectious.
“I’m in his debt forever, my gosh,” Ballard continued, referring to Lewsey. “He sorted everything out, we had a van, which we took and did a tour all the way round the south west up to Cardiff. This was our third rugby game and it had to end this way. Obviously we were going to go out with a come-from-behind win in front of a packed house.”
The Quins hierarchy will be happy to hear Ballard has been keeping his hand in in Michigan, as assistant coach of his alma mater Gladwin High School’s American football team.
And he has been passing on some tips from rugby too.
“They always ask me how much more aggressive rugby is and how much meaner,” he added.
“So I’m just trying to get that over to them. Make sure they’re not too soft out there really.”
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