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Broncos playmaker Gayle Broughton is building up to a return to running after undergoing surgery just prior to Christmas to fix a painful back injury. Hailing from Hāwera Taranaki, Broughton is a Māori All Star and Olympic medallist having played for the Black Fern 7s from 2012-2021 before switching codes to rugby league.

The 27-year-old played the entire 2023 NRLW season with a L4–L5 disc bulge in her lower back that was pressing against nerves, which was only diagnosed at the conclusion of the campaign.

Sleepless nights, the feeling of a knife being run through her leg whenever she’d walk and a subsequently huge mental toll all contributed to what Gayle Broughton describes as a season from hell last year.

The Broncos NRLW star played through excruciating pain at times throughout 2023, with what she later discovered was a L4–L5 disc bulge in her lower back that was pressing against nerves.

Now on the slow road back to running, the 27-year-old told about the life-changing injury, the long layoff following a lower lumber discectomy in late December and the period when she considered retiring from the game altogether.

“It’s been a real eye opener for me, having to learn how to move my body again and be OK with moving it again and learning to trust it,” Broughton said.

“It has been a long and lonely road at times. The biggest thing was how delusional I was to the [post-surgery] process itself. I’ve had ACL surgery and shoulder reconstructions and in my brain I thought it would be a recovery like that.

“But for the four weeks after surgery you basically can not move, you’re on your back and can’t do anything.

“I wouldn’t wish this injury on my worst enemy. It felt like a hot knife going down your leg every step you took. I couldn’t sleep more than two hours at most before I’d wake up in so much pain.

“Not only did it take a physical toll, but it took the most toll on me mentally because I wasn’t sleeping and wasn’t recovering properly.”

Having always struggled with minor back pain throughout her career, Broughton knew something was different when she started to feel the injury in Brisbane’s season-opener against the Roosters last year but attempted to push through it.

But with each passing week it got worse and by Round 3 the former New Zealand rugby sevens star couldn’t even manage a jog at training.

Remarkably she played on and was part of the Broncos’ eventual semi-final loss to the Knights, getting through the campaign with “mental grit and a desire not to let the team down”, but by the end of the season the full extent of the injury was starting to become clear.

What followed was three months spent mostly laid up at home before finally having surgery three days before Christmas.

“That semi-final against the Knights was a low point. I just couldn’t take it anymore and felt like I couldn’t give anything to the team,” Broughton said.

“October to December I couldn’t run, couldn’t walk, for want of a better term life was s**t’. I couldn’t do anything and it was hell.

“I thought about retirement so much, but I said ‘this can’t be the end’.

“But now I am so excited for what’s ahead. I’ve got a new back and I’m not going to take it for granted.”

Broughton is hopeful of returning to some boxing work soon ahead of getting back to running and is confident she’ll be available for the start of the 2024 NRL Telstra Women’s Premiership.