Walt Steenkamp (Gallo Images)
- Bulls lock Walt Steenkamp is the first known case of a South African player suffering from the effects of long Covid.
- The 25-year-old has been struggling with an irregular heartbeat since recovering from the virus and hasn’t played since early December.
- But an ultra cautious approach has seen his conditioning improve dramatically and it’s hoped that he’ll be able to train fully again by mid-April.
He’s back in the gym and on the mend, but Walt Steenkamp has the unfortunate distinction of becoming South African rugby’s first known player to have suffered from the effects ‘long Covid’.
The 25-year-old Bulls lock, who hasn’t played a competitive match since early December, has been struggling with heart-related symptoms since falling prey to a widespread virus outbreak within the squad.
To be fair, Steenkamp’s condition had been disclosed previously though it’s only now gained more attention after the franchise sent out a detailed injury report on Wednesday.
15 Anthony Volmink, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am (captain), 12 Marius Louw, 11 Yaw Penxe, 10 Boeta Chamberlain, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Henco Venter, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Emile van Heerden, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Fez Mbatha, 1 Ox Nche
Substitutes: 16 Kerron van Vuuren, 17 Mzamo Majola, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 JJ van der Mescht, 20 Phepsi Buthelezi, 21 Sanele Nohamba, 22 Rynhardt Jonker, 23 Aphelele Fassi
15 Richard Kriel, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Marnus Potgieter, 12 Dawid Kellerman, 11 Diego Appollis, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Zak Burger, 8 Nizaam Carr (captain), 7 Tim Agaba, 6 Werner Gouws, 5 Janko Swanepoel, 4 Jan Uys, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Schalk Erasmus, 1 Lizo Gqoboka
Substitutes: 16 Janco Uys, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Mornay Smith, 19 Raynard Roets, 20 WJ Steenkamp, 21 Keagan Johannes, 22 Clinton Swart, 23 Jay-Cee Nel
“Walt has actually been extremely unlucky. As far as I understand, it was almost a million-to-one shot that he’d develop heart arrhythmia,” Jake White, the Bulls’ director of rugby, said on Thursday, ahead of his charges’ meeting with the Sharks in the preparation series on Friday evening.
“When we tested all the players again that were infected (after the outbreak), we found that Walt’s heart rhythm wasn’t quite right.”
Indeed, SA Rugby has a well-established if relatively unknown Covid protocol, which dictates that players need to undergo cardiac testing for a period of three to four days after their recovery before they can be allowed to train fully again.
While academic research is starting to trickle in about cardiac symptoms in people that had the virus, arrhythmia is still considered a relatively rare longer-term problem.
“I read a very interesting account in this regard from (legendary South African middle and long distance runner) Zola Budd. When she was training normally, her return from a working heart rate to a normal one took about 45 seconds,” said White.
“After she recovered from Covid, it took her four minutes. That’s a great example of why rugby needs to do cardiac testing after players get Covid. It’s easy to believe a player is fine when he’s recovered, but the virus is a respiratory illness and if reaches your heart it becomes a difficult situation.”
Thankfully, the meticulousness of the Bulls’ medical department ensured that Steenkamp’s affliction wasn’t missed and his recovery has been ultra cautious, especially after he had to undergo an ablation procedure, where doctors “burn” the heart tissue that’s responsible for sending erratic electric signals.
The second-rower will consult a specialist again on 12 April, an appointment that will determine whether he can return to full training with the team again.
“He wasn’t 100% right when he came back. There was definitely problems with his heart rhythm. There was trigger so to speak that totally threw it out,” said White.
“So Walt had to have some of his heart tissue ‘burned’. Those muscles can’t operate independently.”
The improvement has been dramatic already.
“We’re still not quite 100% sure, but Walt is feeling significantly better. He says so himself,” said White.
“He’s training again, doing his gym work and diligently checking his pulse, which is now stable. That’s great news for us. Walt definitely isn’t unfit, we just want to sure he’s 100%.”
Kick-off at Kings Park on Friday is at 19:00.