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How rugby is helping tackle HIV Aids in Swaziland
How rugby is helping tackle HIV Aids in Swaziland

Michael Collinson died three times on the night he crashed into a bull.

On a hazardous African summer's evening, the sort which makes headlights inconsequential, unceasing rain thrashed onto the windscreen and blinded Collinson as he sat in the passenger seat of his car. As if bobbing on a ship in high seas, his wife negotiated the country lanes in wild winds on a jet-black December night.

"We came around the corner and in front of us is the king of the road," the garrulous Englishman tells CNN Sport.

Bang. Collinson is flung forward, the bull is tossed upwards. Thud. It lands on the roof with metal-flattening force.

A piece of the roof arrows into Collinson's neck, severing his spinal chord and, instantly, the amateur rugby player is paralyzed.

"It was the perfect shot, one any sniper would be proud of," Collinson, speaking from his home in Malkerns, Swaziland, says matter-of-factly.

Three times he was resuscitated. He should be a quadriplegic, he says, and gives thanks every day that he still has use of his arms.

Yet there were days, years even, when the 58-year-old wished he hadn't survived.

Collinson can talk with understanding about pain, depression and suicidal thoughts; of the torment of coming to terms with his physical limitations.

Though he also knows about overcoming adversity, of the power of positivity and how an all-consuming passion for rugby can change lives.

It is 10 years since Collinson started his charity SKRUM (Swaziland Kids Rugby Mission), an organization which uses rugby to engage and educate children about HIV and Aids.

The charity has visited 650 of Swaziland's 817 schools and its motto is simple yet effective: pass the ball not the virus.

Combining field work with classroom sessions for older pupils allows the charity to get its message across to 600 children a day.

Rugby's ethos of respect, discipline and integrity compliments the charity's message, says Collinson.

"It's all to do with protecting the ball, protect yourself. It's playing, talking, playing, talking, but it's all to do with laughter," he explains.

"You remember something far more if you learned it when you were happy."

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'We kept being told they had moved on'

Swaziland is a country with the highest rate of new infections and the highest proportion of people living with HIV.

According to Unaids, an estimated 222,000 of the 1.1 million population are living with HIV, with 27% of adults aged 15 to 49 infected.

It was in 2006, when Collinson and his wife returned to the homesteads they once had regularly visited, that Collinson became aware of how the virus had decimated the country.

The couple would knock on the doors of the folk who had once welcomed them onto their land only to be told the person in question had "moved on."

"We just thought they'd moved," explains Collinson, who has called Swaziland home since 1985.

"After the 15th or 16th time of this happening, we started asking more and more questions and it was all to do with HIV/Aids.

"In 2006 I looked into what was being done and nothing was being done for the youngsters."

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Looking like a 'spatchcock chicken'

The former engineer's life is quite the story. Contently, and often lightheartedly, he talks about the cornerstones of his remarkable tale: the near-death traumas, vicious rugby tackles and his charity work.

Collinson already knew what it was like to battle through hell even before the mammoth bull struck.

In a ferocious rugby match in South Africa in 1995 he broke his back and pubic bone and crushed a disk after being tackled in a so-called friendly.

He was left splayed on the pitch, he says, looking like "a spatchcock chicken."

His playing days were on hold -- he would still go on to represent Swaziland -- the lock shifted his focus onto coaching the game he loved and learned from the best, such Jake White, a man who led South Africa to Rugby World Cup glory in 2007.

Normality returned. For a few years, at least. Until Boxing Day 2002, the night of that fateful drive home from a Christmas party.

"The black dog," as Collinson calls the depression he suffered, struck with as much force as any mammoth bull.

"I hated every second of being in a wheelchair. Hated being in it, hated looking at it," says Collinson.

"Any time I could I'd get out of it. You can't go from 6ft 3in, totally athletic, 104kg, running around, going to the gym, feeling great to a sudden stop.

"I can fully understand why people do top themselves. Daily it crossed my mind."

Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Collison felt he no longer belonged on a rugby field and used the office of his wife's interior design store to shut himself away from the world. His circle of friends decreased, too.

"I was in a dark place," says the former Swaziland assistant coach.

Collinson's wife would describe him as a caged lion and urged her husband to find a purpose, to put his passion for rugby to good use.

What the charismatic Yorkshireman with a talent for teaching went on to do not only transformed the lives of youngsters in Swaziland, but changed his life too.

SKRUM, he admits, "brought the old Michael back."

"It was meant to be, I think. Tripping that bull did totally change my life and I think for the better. I was living at 120mph," he says.

"I'm meeting different people, kind people. I'm so happy and blessed to be part of something like SKRUM."

Over the last decade, Collinson has noticed a change in the country's attitude to the virus. He is now answering intelligent questions, he says, when 10 years ago no questions were asked at all.

The rate of new infections in Swaziland has reportedly almost halved in the last five years as access to HIV testing has improved and the provision of free antiretroviral treatment increased.

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But the myths surrounding the virus still remain.

"You can contract HIV/Aids from using the same fork is one of them," says Collinson. "Hugging is another, wearing the same clothes, sitting on the same toilet..."

There is still much to be done and the Englishman has ambitions of also raising awareness in Botswana and Kenya, too.

"Ignore the youth, ignore your future," he passionately concludes.

"That's when all the problems will be solved, when we educate the youngsters."

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