Rugby referee Peter Woods at home this week with his daughter Alex. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Rugby referee Peter Woods at home this week with his daughter Alex. Picture: Jonathan Ng

When the ref’s heart stopped, rugby mates swung into action

PETER Woods died last week.

Today he's alive, drinking red wine and joking that he'll sue the rugby club that broke his rib cage to bring him back from the grave.

It hurts like hell every time he laughs, but it's the sweetest pain he's ever felt.

As he told The Saturday Telegraph: "It could have been worse, but the stars were aligned for me."

It's a miracle that Woods is alive because for nine minutes last Saturday he was clinically dead after suffering a cardiac arrest while refereeing a second-grade rugby match at Wollongong University.

A legendary figure in country rugby, the 66-year-old President of Illawarra Rugby collapsed face-first into the turf without warning after his heart suddenly stopped beating.

He was unresponsive, wasn't breathing and had no pulse, but what could have been the last day of his life turned out to be his luckiest.

One of the teams he was refereeing was the Woonona Shamrocks, whose members just happen to be in the business of saving lives.

When they're not playing rugby, the Shamrocks volunteer their free time to rescue drowning swimmers from South Coast beaches and fight bushfires, so they knew what to do and sprung into action.

"I guess all the training and instincts just kicked in," said Andrew Johnston, one of the men who saved Woods' life.

A former Shamrocks player, Johnston took up refereeing himself after being talked into it by Woods, who was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2013 for his services to rugby and the Illawarra community.

Johnston was running the touch line when Woods dropped to the ground, so dropped his flag and ran to begin administering CPR.

"It's really difficult when you work on someone you know, it's not like working on a stranger," Johnston said.

"I did about 250 compressions when I got tagged out. I was exhausted."

Scott Lunney, the Shamrocks' second-grade coach, took over the job of pumping Woods' chest.

Lunney has been a member of the Sandon Point Surf Life Saving Club for decades so has been involved in rescue missions before, but this was uncharted waters.

"I've had issues with swimmers in a drowning state where they just cough at the right time," he said. "But I've never dealt with a dead person and that was a dead person under my watch.

"There was no movement, no response, nothing."

As each minute ticked by, the chances of saving Woods were diminishing, but one thing that all rugby teams are taught is to stick together and never quit.

Scott McKellar, Andrew Johnston, Tobias Lunney and Scott Lunney  visit Peter Woods in Wollongong Hospital this week. Picture: Scott Lunney
Scott McKellar, Andrew Johnston, Tobias Lunney and Scott Lunney visit Peter Woods in Wollongong Hospital this week. Picture: Scott Lunney

The crowd was starting to panic so the first-grade manager, Scott McKellar, and third-grade coach Kieran Smith kept them away from the resuscitators, as one of the club's youngest members stepped up to the plate.

Like the rest of his family, the Shamrocks' second-grade halfback Tobias Lunney is a trained lifesaver, but he's only 22 and still at University studying commerce and law.

He had been right next to Woods when he fell, but noticed the ref's  tongue was blocking his airways.

So Lunney stuck his fingers in Woods' mouth to clear a passage before placing an oxygen mask over his face.

And he calmly kept count for his father, Scott, reassuring him as continue with CPR even after Woods failed to respond to an electric shock from a defibrillator.

It took nine minutes and about 800 compressions, so many that Woods' ribs cracked under the force, but finally he came back to life, just as the paramedics arrived.

"He was very, very lucky," said Chief Inspector Norman Rees.

"It can be a bit of a roulette wheel on whether someone survives after collapsing like that and it all depends on early intervention and effective intervention.

"Nobody really knows if they have the ability to step up in these situations but what we saw here was people who have that innate quality and worked together for a positive outcome."

A family lawyer by profession, Woods is only jesting about taking the Shamrocks to court because he lives by the idiom that blood is thicker than water.

The inside gag is that the Shamrocks are the sworn on-field enemies of the Wollongong Vikings, the club Woods played for before becoming a referee.

"That's the thing about rugby," he said. "What we all have in common is that we just love to play the game, so it's a family and we take care of our family."