Ngane Punivai was on his haunches, desperately trying to suck back the oxygen his exhausted body craved during a stoppage in play.
The 23-year-old Highlander glanced at the Forsyth Barr Stadium scoreboard. Barely six minutes of their Super Rugby match against the Blues in Dunedin had been played.
The problem was Punivai felt like he’d played 70 minutes, and didn’t know how long he could go on.
“Every stoppage I was in coughing fits, I was just really struggling,” Punivai recalled.
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Diagnosed with long Covid a few weeks later, and utilizing the benefit of hindsight, he wishes he had never pushed through.
More than three months down the road, Punivai hasn’t played since the Highlanders’ 32-25 defeat on March 26.
Nor has he trained in full, as the only Kiwi Super Rugby player understood to have long Covid continues to fight to regain his fitness.
“That’s the most frustrating thing,” Punivai said. “There is not a lot of research, we don’t know a lot about long Covid.
“I was told it’s just a waiting game. I’ve got to rest. I could be sweet in a week, it could be a couple of months, it could be a year. That was really hard, not knowing when I would be back on the field.”
Along with the majority of the Highlanders, Punivai contracted Covid-19 mid-March, prompting their round five game against Moana Pasifika to be postponed.
It didn’t floor Punivai, who compared it to a mild cold. He spent the week at home, before returning to Highlanders HQ the following week.
Having navigated return-to-play protocols, Punivai was named on the right wing to play the Blues, only to feel zapped as body aches and the sweats set in after training two days before the match.
But Punivai made the decision he later regretted to push through.
“In the warm-up, I didn’t feel good. But at that stage in the season we hadn’t won a game yet. I just wanted to push through because we had a lot of guys still out with Covid. We didn’t have much cover.”
Punivai, having told the medical team he “was in a hole” after the Blues scored a first-half try, made it until halftime before calling it quits.
“As soon as I came off and sat on the bench, I was shivering. Everyone else didn’t need the jackets because it was warm [Saturday afternoon]. ”
Punivai didn’t suspect long Covid. He took a week off and rested up, thinking he’d be good to go the following week.
He soon realized that wouldn’t be the case, after a 25-minute bike and gym session floored him.
“I’d go home and sleep for a few hours because I was absolutely knackered, which isn’t normal for me. I don’t nap during the day.”
Eager to get to the bottom of it, the Highlanders’ medical team asked Punivai to walk a few kilometers on a treadmill and monitored his heart rate.
“It was as if I was running a marathon when I was just walking a few kilometers.”
Punivai was sent to a cardiologist, had an ultrasound of his heart, and did a treadmill ECG test to check his heart’s rhythm and electrical activity.
No abnormalities were found.
“The only thing they couldn’t explain was how high my heart rate was getting during exercise, and how long it took to come down after I’d finished.
“It was after that I was officially diagnosed with long Covid.”
Off-contract with the Highlanders at the end of the 2022 season, being sidelined indefinitely meant he couldn’t put his hand up for a new contract.
“It was tough. It is tough,” he said.
After three seasons at the Highlanders, Punivai is back in Christchurch and in the dark as to when he might get a chance to show Super Rugby franchises he’s good to go.
The Christ’s College old boy has gradually been increasing his exercise load, and has gone from struggling to jog for five minutes to being able to handle 15 minutes on the treadmill.
“That’s a big step in the right direction for me. That was just last week … I am definitely getting better.”
Punivai has also started lifting heavier weights more regularly, and has noticed he’s becoming less exhausted after exercising.
He’ll be on deck at Christchurch’s Rugby Park when Canterbury’s NPC squad forms ahead of the season in a fortnight, and is optimistic he’ll pull on the red and black jersey at some stage this year.
That said, Punivai is quick to point out he’s not setting the bar too high, not after his ongoing ordeal has hammered home the fact his health is more important than rugby, and prompted him to speak out in a bid to raise awareness around long Covid .
“I just think it’s important people understand long Covid does exist, and it hits everyone differently. I’m lucky I’ve got the medical support I need to explain to my bosses, the coaches, that I do have this, and I can’t play because of it.
“Some people who might work in an office job or something might not understand as much, because they don’t have the same support and medical backing I do.
“It is real, it is out there, and it affects everyone differently.”