Joe played for Scotland from 2009Craig Watson

Wednesday at 8pm must surely be one of the worst times to Zoom someone. You’ve got that lethargic, mid-week exhaustion, not quite near enough Monday to have that post-weekend buzz nor close enough to Friday to have the excitement of a Saturday lie-in. However, I called Cambridge alumnus and former international rugby player Joe Ansbro on Wednesday at precisely 8pm. Joe’s attitude was a refreshing blend of humility, passion and quick-witted humour – the call was exactly the mid-week, lockdown 3.0 pick me up I needed.

Joe graduated from Robinson with a Biological Natural Sciences degree in 2006 before playing for Northampton Saints, London Irish and later in his career, Scotland. Ansbro, by any metric, was a renowned, up-and-coming player – having claimed 11 international caps by the time he was forced to retire in 2012 due to a devastating neck injury.

However, rugby was not a predetermined destiny for Joe, rather he described his family as all being much more heavily involved in football. Despite this, he does feel that being a “frustrated footballer” and having two older brothers was certainly all the preparation he needed to be a success in rugby – or as he wittily remarked: “I was used to contact”.

Having made his way through the English grade system, Joe was aware of the difficult realities of ‘making it’ into the rugby business. Despite some “tenuous offers” to join clubs at the age of 18, Joe considered it a “no-brainer” to go to Cambridge, thinking it was highly unlikely that he would play professional rugby anyway. Fast-forward a year and Joe was a fresher at Cambridge – far away from the Blues set up and enjoying nights out at Cindies, the Robinson bar and the “incredible places” around town.

“Playing for Scotland was a dream come true”

Yet seeing that a number of players in Cambridge were playing for England and elsewhere, Joe had a ‘light-bulb’ moment where he felt that he could do it – even if many of his friends “thought he was crazy because I was barely in the 21s team at uni”.

Joe began to play rugby more intensely, eventually playing 3 Varsity matches, with two of these matches being Blues. When I asked him how he found the balance of a notoriously intense Natural Sciences degree and training 6 times a week, he described rugby as a “nice foil” for the academic environment. He wryly remarked that he never thought he “was going to set the world on fire academically” anyway but was competent enough to handle the balance.

While Joe feels “immensely grateful” for his time at University, he said that by his final year he was very much “ready to put a full stop” on the Cambridge period of his life. And it was easy enough for Joe to move on; having signed a contract with Northampton in his third year, the club was waiting for him to join.

Despite having signed a contract while still at Cambridge, Joe continued to study as he knew he wanted to “finish University properly”. In hindsight, Joe expressed deep satisfaction with the decision to finish his degree – it was an important life line when looking for alternative careers after his injury.

Joe had already had an introduction to Northampton, having played a pre-season with them before his final Varsity match: “The pre-season definitely gave me a boost….I got to see and talk to some incredible players. [For] the Varsity match that year, Oxford were the firm favourites, so it did give me a lot more confidence and I was probably a better athlete for it”.

In terms of the mindset fostered by playing Varsity matches, Joe feels they were definitely useful experiences in preparation for professional rugby, as it’s “that double-loaded all or nothing mentality: you’ve got to get picked and then you’ve got to win the game and there is only one opportunity every year”.

This all-or-nothing attitude continued to characterise Joe’s resilient game, playing a combined total of 79 games for Northampton Saints and London Irish as well as 11 international appearances for Scotland. Joe made his international debut in 2009 in a tour around Romania but was only called up to play for Scotland again a year later, in a game against reigning world champions South Africa. Scotland came out with a surprise win, beating South Africa 21-7, and Joe told me the match was a “dream come true”.

Joe Ansbro playing for the Northampton Saints in 2020 Claire Jones/

Joe always knew that if he was ever going to play professional rugby, “Scotland would always be the goal”. After a couple of Six Nation losses Joe decided to change club in order to develop himself as a player. He told me how he “completely shifted focus. It then became about actually adding a huge amount of value [to the team] and becoming a key player of the team...that’s where I was at before my injury: I was looking to become a key player for Scotland.”

With this in mind, Joe signed a three year contract with London Irish. Ultimately, he was only there for two years and only played one season due to injuries. And Joe has certainly had his fair share of injuries. Throughout our interview he casually peppers the conversation with mentions of a broken rib, slipped disc or the odd concussion – his relatively blasé attitude clearly conveys Joe’s commitment to getting ‘stuck in’ and a perception of injury as an inevitable part of the “nature of the beast”.

“That’s where I was at before my injury: I was looking to become a key player for Scotland.”

Joe does mention the worrying disconnect between international and club rugby in terms of their attitudes to injury. He recounts how one time he had to put his foot down; Joe was “concussed flat out and was due to play against Ireland in the Six Nations” and while Scotland’s doctor said he couldn’t play, his club encouraged him to. He said that even though “no one forced me to play, the fact I had to have that conversation was slightly disconcerting although not surprising.”

And this was certainly not a conversation Joe frequently had, describing himself as a “bit irresponsible” with it taking a broken neck to make him realise he “wasn’t going to play rugby again”. The injury occurred during a pre-season match against Munster for London Irish, prematurely ending Joe’s career.

Having such high ambitions for his career, I asked Joe how he found coming to terms with the injury. “I always had half a foot out the door with rugby, it helped me stop that pressure turning into certainly by the time they told me [that] I’d broken my neck I’d made my decision straight away. I made that decision as my recovery started but by the time I was 12 months into my recovery and the halo brace was off, the concept of running around and playing three dimensional sport was slightly terrifying. I think I managed to crash my brother’s car trying to do a reverse park, I just couldn’t really move properly, so I just thought I can’t get on a rugby field like this”.

“The concept of running around and playing three dimensional sport was slightly terrifying.”

So what is Joe Ansbro up to now? Well, after looking around to see what he wanted to do and taking the opportunity to spend some much needed time with his family – Joe tells me rugby is “horrendously anti-social” – Ansbro is a secondary school biology teacher at Harrow. He entered Harrow in a postgraduate assistant master role seven years ago and has never looked back. While it took Ansbro about 3 years to “get his brain back going again after rugby, rugby, rugby and too much PlayStation”, he tells me he is now fully immersed in teaching and is “really enjoying it”.

Joe finishes telling me his remarkable story by talking about his children and family, reflecting that he has “no regrets” and feels “really lucky”. And if that’s not an admirable life philosophy, I don’t know what is?