Bay of Plenty lock Baden Wardlaw was in the prime of his career.

The 29-year-old had signed his first Super Rugby contract with the Auckland Blues, ready to make his debut next season.

But last Friday he got career-ending news that would force him to retire before his professional rugby career had even started.

Medical checks found he had three fused vertebrae in his neck, a life-threatening condition he was born with, which meant if he suffered a knock in the wrong place he would die.


After further testing and extensive opinions from New Zealand and international experts, the advice was that he should never play rugby again.

It's news he's found hard to come to grips with, feeling as though his life-long dream of becoming a Super Rugby player was about to become reality.

"I thought I had finally made it. This was my dream to play for the Blues," Wardlaw said.

"I have had the fused vertebrae since birth and it has not stopped me doing anything. But to then receive this news that I should give up rugby for the rest of my life is hard to come to grips with.

"The medical people have gone to a number of specialists and they have all said the same thing. That is that if I got a knock in the wrong position I could end up as a tetraplegic or worse, I could die.

"I need to be thankful that this was found out, although right now I am still gutted because this was my dream."

Wardlaw did not want to make any further comment.

A vital part of the Bay of Plenty Steamers for the past two years, Wardlaw made a massive contribution to his team.


Head coach Clayton McMillan says it's hard to comprehend that Wardlaw's dream to play professional rugby had been taken away from him. He described him as one of the Steamers' outstanding players of 2019.

"There's a lot of hurt. I really feel sorry for him," McMillan says.

McMillan has been in regular contact with Wardlaw over recent days. While he says when you learn of the worst case scenario of Wardlaw's condition, "in some regard you count your lucky stars" he has learned of it before it is too late.

However, it doesn't "soften the blow" of "the hurt and disappointment" of a dream being stripped from you, McMillan says.

Wardlaw's situation was not one McMillan - a seasoned rugby player and coach - had seen before and said no one could have seen it coming.

Without the rigorous screening and tests players go through to play Super Rugby, McMillan says Wardlaw "could've gone a whole lifetime without knowing" just how dangerous and risky playing a sport that he loved was.

"It's just devastating."

McMillan says while Wardlaw's contribution as a player would "without a doubt" be missed on the field, his greatest contribution to his team is that he's a great teammate, "a great role model and somebody who is a good family man".

Wardlaw was a late bloomer in rugby, having put his rugby goals on hold while his wife pursued her studies.

"He put his family first," McMillan says.

Bay of Plenty lock Baden Wardlaw celebrates with his family following his team's Mitre 10 Cup Championship final win against Hawke's Bay. Photo / Getty Images
Bay of Plenty lock Baden Wardlaw celebrates with his family following his team's Mitre 10 Cup Championship final win against Hawke's Bay. Photo / Getty Images

Having played rugby for Bay of Plenty through the age grades, he made the Bay of Plenty Development Squad in 2012 before taking time off to focus on his family.

"That says a lot about him as a human."

In 2016, Wardlaw was in a position to play again. He returned to the sport to play club rugby with Rotoiti and immediately begun making his mark.

In 2017 Wardlaw began his two year reign as captain of Rotoiti, who won the Baywide Premier final that same year, was also named in the Bay of Plenty Wasps side to face the New Zealand Universities and by September, was called in to replace an injured Tyler Ardron in a crucial match for the Bay of Plenty Steamers.

He was also named men's player of the year at the 2017 Bay of Plenty Rugby Awards.

The following year Wardlaw was drafted into the wider Chiefs squad to cover a locking shortage and was named in the 2018 Bay of Plenty Steamers squad.

This year, having moved to Whakarewarewa, he co-captained the Samurai 10s squad at the Hong Kong 10s tournament, was part of the Mitre 10 Cup championship winning Bay of Plenty Steamers squad and was excited about his commitment to the Blues for the 2020 Super Rugby season.

Blues coach Leon MacDonald said he was "gutted" for Wardlaw, who was set to become the oldest rookie in the team.

"Baden has worked so hard and impressed us with his work ethic and quality of play. We are bitterly disappointed for him but at the same time this is a very serious condition which have been life-threatening."

Wardlaw, a competitive crossfit athlete, said fitness had always been an interest, and he would look to move into strength and conditioning training as a way of remaining in the sport.

The Blues are expected to announce a replacement in the coming days.