Rugby World Cup: Black Ferns star Charmaine McMenamin overcomes career-threatening spinal injury to return for World Cup dream

Just 14 months ago, Black Ferns star Charmaine McMenamin feared she may have played her final game of rugby.

In June 2021, the East Coast product felt a pinch in her legs, while playing for Ponsonby in the Auckland lub rugby final against Marist, battling through the discomfort to see out the match.

After briefly losing feeling in her legs, McMenamin realised she needed urgent medical attention. Doctors later diagnosed her with a serious spinal injury, which forced her to confront the brutal reality of life without rugby.

"I actually didn't know if I'd ever play again, which was massive for me," McMenamin recalled. "Rugby is my passion and I've played for a very long time."

Fortunately, McMenamin, 32, found the specialist she needed and underwent surgery, which saw two vertebrae fused, eight pins inserted in her back and two bone spurs removed from her spinal cord.

Suddenly, the 27-test loose forward's chances of relacing her boots and even returning for a second World Cup were once again genuine possibilities.

Her first step back on the pitch came during the Black Ferns trial in July. She featured for Auckland during the Farah Palmer Cup, before returning to the international stage against Australia during the Laurie O'Reilly Cup, where her star turn reinforced her self-confidence.

"If I think about it now, it's a bit of a surreal feeling," she admitted. "Obviously, at the time, I didn't know what it was that had happened.

"In my head, I wanted to be at the World Cup. I thought this was the goal, but I didn't put too much expectation on it, because going from not ever being able to play again to just being back on the field - that's a massive achievement in itself.

"From there, I just ticked boxes and I must've ticked the right ones, because I'm here."

Bizarrely, along the road to recovery, McMenamin also discovered she had been playing with a broken arm, which she believes dated all the way back to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

"I only just found out when I back to the gym after my back injury," she noted. "When I was lifting at the gym, I thought my elbow was getting really sore, then got that scanned and turns out I had a broken elbow."

Eloise Blackwell and Charmaine McMenamin celebrate their World Cup win back in 2017.
Eloise Blackwell and Charmaine McMenamin celebrate their World Cup win back in 2017. Photo credit: Getty Images

With her multitude of ailments now fully addressed, McMenamin shapes as one of the key cogs for the Black Ferns campaign, after helping lead the side to Rugby World Cup glory back in Ireland in 2017. Two years later, she was named Black Ferns Player of the Year and is adamant she has plenty left in the tank for a potentially historic triumph on home soil.

Beyond that, she foresees the enormous impact a successful campaign would have on the women's game in New Zealand.

"Performing on the world stage is going to be massive, especially at home," McMenamin noted.

"It's going to be huge. You saw the growth from going for gold [in 2017], when it boomed, then sevens became an Olympic sport and it boomed again. 

"Having the best countries in the world here playing is just going to be unreal. It's about holding on to the momentum after this World Cup and I hope we can do well. 

"That will definitely help with the momentum of things."

Watch the Rugby World Cup live on Spark Sport or free-to-air on Three, or join us on Saturday for live updates of the Black Ferns v Australia World Cup opener