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England coach Andrew Strawbridge on how he nearly died 'several times' after being struck down with sepsis and defying losing sight in one eye to work with Steve Borthwick's side

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Should England’s players or staff ever require inspiration about spirit in adversity, they will find it in conversation with their new Kiwi coach, Andrew Strawbridge, who nearly died ‘several times’ in 2015.

The 60-year-old recruit to Steve Borthwick’s Red Rose management team has spoken about being struck down by what he calls ‘a hideous little thing’ – sepsis, and how he lived to tell the tale. He is defying a bleak medical prognosis and the loss of his sight in one eye to work in Test rugby and he wants to highlight the widespread scourge of a blood-poisoning illness which kills eight million people worldwide every year.

Having returned to New Zealand with his new employers, Strawbridge recounted what happened to him nine years ago. It was a harrowing episode. ‘I was going to Samoa to help them with the World Cup and I got ill on the plane,’ he said. ‘I had a little graze on my eye. I picked up a little infection at the airport – the superbug. By the time I got to Samoa, I was feeling pretty crook (ill). I got taken to hospital and sent home with oral anti-biotics.

‘I don’t remember anything else other than that. What happened was, the infection got into my body, I was left unattended for 20-odd hours, and developed sepsis. Blood clots set up on my brain and behind my eye. I went through some pretty grim times.

‘My wife was called over to Samoa to take the body home, essentially. I think I was resuscitated three times through that process. She (Laura, his wife) had pretty horrible things to hear, that you don’t want to hear about a spouse.’

England's new coach Andrew Strawbridge has spoken about being struck down with sepsis nine years ago

Strawbridge developed sepsis after being left unattended for 20-odd hours after picking up an infection while in Samoa

The 60-year-old admitted he nearly died 'several times' and was told he would not work again due to chronic fatigue

In a remarkable twist, a Kiwi doctor was in the area and came to his aid. Without that timely good fortune, Strawbridge doesn’t think he would have survived.

‘I was very lucky,’ he said. ‘There was a guy called Dave Galler over there – the head of ICU at one of the big hospitals here in Auckland. He just happened to be there because his wife was there on secondment as a judge, so he came and helped, which is why I’m still alive.

‘It was a pretty grim set-up in the ICU (unit) there. They had high mortality rates, particularly among children. I’m here because people worked really hard with some pretty average equipment to keep me alive. Then we made it back to New Zealand and eventually I got well enough to leave hospital.’

While returning home was a positive break-through, it was by no means the end of Strawbridge’s ordeal. Then came the appointment which ignited his stubborn refusal to accept his fate. ‘I went to meet the infectious diseases specialist who told me what my life was going to be like,’ he added.

‘I was told that I would suffer from chronic fatigue for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t work again, that I would be impotent and they didn’t know how long I would last. Those were all good things to tell a competitive bastard! So, I went home with that ringing in my ears and stumbled along.

Strawbridge lost his sight in one eye but returned to rugby in roles at the Chiefs and with New Zealand

New Zealand's Calen Clarke, right, hugs Strawbridge, who worked as a skills coach with the All Blacks in their run to the Rugby World Cup final last year

‘I had to see a psychologist because when you nearly die several times, they want you to talk to someone. So, I did. He was a really good man and explained to me how I might view things slightly differently and won’t suffer fools gladly and be a little more forthright in telling people that. The “no-s**t, Sherlock” approach. I think through the process, I became a better listener.’

Strawbridge lost the sight in his right eye because his optic nerve had been ‘crushed’. He joked that he is probably the only skills coach in the world who isn’t able to catch a ball properly now. It is clear that humour has under-pinned his efforts to rebuild his life, but there has been another factor. ‘I rediscovered a love of music, because the pipe music in ICU drove me f***ing crazy,’ he quipped.

‘My daughter sends me a lot of music. The last song she sent me was Prep School Gangsters by Vampire Weekend. That was the last song I listened to. I go to gigs whenever I can. I just bought tickets to Greta van Fleet. They are a bit like Led Zeppelin but they are all 20-21. The lead singer is just like Robert Plant. That’s my next gig.’

He has been involved in a sepsis foundation in New Zealand, having heard so many stories of people dying, or losing limbs and having their lives ‘inexorably altered’. Also, contrary to that initial medical prediction, he has worked again in rugby; with the Chiefs and the All Blacks and now with England.

Before Covid came along, Strawbridge was due to work with Steve Borthwick at Leicester, but the global pandemic scuppered that arrangement. But the head coach of the national team got in touch again late last year.

He worked as a consultant with England during the Six Nations before joining as an assistant coach and coaching advisor for the summer tour of Japan and New Zealand 

Strawbridge had initially been due to work with Steve Borthwick at Leicester, but has now joined his England set-up

‘When I came back from the World Cup, where I had been working with New Zealand, I got a phone call from Steve wanting to talk about New Zealand’s progress through the World Cup and how they got better,’ said Strawbridge. ‘So, we did that and a few days later he rang again, and wanted more conversation, then he wanted to bring his assistant coaches onto the chat.

‘I said, “This is starting to feel a bit like work, think about what you want”. So, Steve rang and said, “Would you come over for a month for pre-Six Nations and just have a look and a feel around and see if there is any value you can add. I went over and, at that time, I had a few job offers on the table, so we talked about going over there and doing stuff.

‘It seemed they could put up with me and I was pretty impressed with the plan for the group, the effort the coaches were making, and the players were prepared to make, and the open and honest environment. So, when he suggested coming back for a little bit longer, it appealed.’

He is on board until the end of next year, despite only a vague grasp of his actual role and remit. ‘I am sort of trying to figure that out,’ he joked. ‘It’s a young coaching group and I’m literally a grey-beard. I am an old man who has made loads of mistakes and people should learn from that. I am happy to share it. Strawbridge has plenty to share – from technical know-how to musical opinions to wisdom and inspiration about the triumph of the human spirit. The man and his story can make a difference.

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