Big dreams can come with big ears on the field at the Rugby World Cup

TORONTO — The Rugby World Cup will showcase some of the world’s best athletes. And, in some cases, some pretty ugly appendages.

Big dreams can be accompanied by big ears on the rugby field.

Like wrestling and mixed martial arts, rugby is often contested in close quarters — especially in the scrum where players are locked together like a grinding, grunting human jigsaw. The result can be a cauliflower ear.

Repeated blows can cause blood clots in the ear and damage the tissue, resulting in bumpy or lumpy appearances on part of the ear, similar to a cauliflower. 

For some it is a badge of courage. For others, it is cringe-worthy.

Canadian Doug Wooldridge toils in the scrum’s coal face as a tighthead prop. He’s happy to say his ears have largely escaped damage so far.

“Fortunately I don’t have cauliflower ears,” said the 29-year-old from Lindsay, Ont. “My right ear is a bit bigger than my left, just from friction. But I think I have been blessed with very squishy cartilage in my ears. My ears fold and squish up very easily so I think that I’m not as susceptible as other guys with harder cartilage that, when they get a real big smack, it kinds of breaks and fills with fluid and makes those balloon-shaped things.

“My fiancee’s pretty happy.”

England forwards coach Graham Rowntree, a former test prop, may be rugby’s poster boy for cauliflower ears. Plug his name into Google and the word ears will likely pop up without prompting. 

Rowntree’s battered ears stick out under his shaved head, looking like smaller versions of the wing-like ears of the Ferengi in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” You could hang a jacket on them.

In a 2004 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Rowntree insisted he tried to take care of them as a player.

“But they’re that big and they stick out too much. When you’ve got that inflammation it just doesn’t stop,” he said. “The skin’s so thin, one little knock opens up the scabs again. They never really heal. It’s me mum’s fault. She’s got big ears. She won’t mind me saying.”

Veteran New Zealand hooker Keven Mealamu’s ears tell the story of all 126 of his All Black caps. 

“Well, I was lucky I got married before these ears came along. I think she sees past it,” the 36-year-old told the New Zealand Herald earlier this year. “But she does wonder if it works.”

Some players wear scrum caps as protection. Others wrap bandage and tape around their heads to protect the ears.

There are even protective ear covers — imagine a tiny tire cut into quarters with one of the segments placed on the ear.

Vasoline is also popular, for use on ears, eyebrows and anywhere else subject to friction during a game.

Being a tighthead prop is just what it sounds like. Wooldridge’s head is between the opposing prop and hooker. On the other side of the scrum, the loosehead prop only has the opposing tighthead prop grinding into him.

The five-foot-11 234-pound Wooldridge, who does not wear protection other than a coat of Vaseline, says he feels pressure more on his entire body than his head.

“It’s kind of the equivalent of doing a really, really heavy squat,” he said.

Thanks to a big beard and wild shock of hair, Canadian loosehead prop Hubert Buydens’ ears are hard to spot.

“I think under that big mop of hair, he does have fairly colourful ears,” Wooldridge said with a chuckle. “Definitely on the one side of his head, the right side … I know he’s got one pretty big ear.”

Wooldridge also points to star lock Jamie Cudmore, a six-foot-five 255-pound enforcer on the rugby field.

“Jamie Cudmore has big ones,” he said. “But we don’t tell him that.”

Canada, ranked 18th in the world, opens its World Cup campaign against No. 6 Ireland on Sept. 19 in Cardiff.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press