JACK Nowell is up and running again after a ten-month period which must have felt like he was starring in his own series of Casualty.
However, at the moment the coronavirus lockdown means there is no try-line for the Exeter Chiefs, England and Lions winger to tilt at.
Instead, the Chiefs squad is on enforced home leave, and Nowell, who is itching to put his boots on again after a 20-minute charge off the bench in the Chiefs win over Bath a fortnight ago brought an end to his latest two-month spell on the sidelines, has to bide his time – again.
He needs the patience of a legion of saints given that his latest absence was the last in a long list of injuries stretching back to when he damaged his left ankle in last year’s Premiership final at Twickenham.
They have resulted in Nowell missing out on the 2020 Six Nations after also barely having a sniff of the action at the World Cup due to injury woes in triplicate – ankle surgery, appendicitis, and a torn hamstring.
The match gave Nowell the chance to put the rehab from a second operation to the same ankle to the test, having sustained further damage to it against Saracens at Sandy Park in late December.
His verdict? “With most injuries the most important thing is mentally to get on top of it. The most dangerous bit is just after injury, because you always need five or six games to get battle hardened. I still need those games, but I was really excited to play against Bath, and I felt good – fit and strong – and the ankle was a lot freer.”
He says: “I had my left ankle tidied up a bit, and a lot of scar tissue removed. I had the op on a Friday and was then back doing rehab on the Monday, running on an antigravity AlterG treadmill on 50 per cent of my body weight.”
Nowell, who is a Red Bull athlete, was also invited to spend some time at their high-performance sports centre in Salzburg, and he says the facility in the Austrian city is “pretty phenomenal”.
He adds: “Athletes get one-on-one time there with medics and physios, whereas in rugby they have a whole squad to look after. I was able to take my family out, and it was great because it can get quite repetitive in rehab and the change of scene, with some snow about, was welcome.”
However, now he is fighting fit, Nowell says he and his Chiefs team-mates cannot wait for the call to action given that the club are top of the Premiership and remain in the Champions Cup knockout stages.
“As a club we are desperate for the season to carry on because we are in a very good position in the Premiership and the European Cup. We feel we have let ourselves down in Europe, so this time we tried to put it all in our hands, to go out to win every match, rather than trying to manage it.”
He adds that England coach Eddie Jones was in contact with the occasional text over the Six Nations. “He said to me to ‘make sure you get fit and come back at your best’ – so, if I am playing well and there is an England tour to Japan, I hope Eddie takes me so I can show what I can do.”
Nowell, who is not a great rugby watcher, said he enjoyed seeing his England team-mates come back strongly after the loss in Paris to compete for the title.
“It was very exciting, and I was gutted that the last round was cancelled. What people don’t understand is that playing against a new France team with plenty of support is hard.
“A young team can be extremely dangerous because the players feel they have nothing to lose, and no expectations. I know that I felt it was a win-win when I won my first England cap, for the same reasons.
“A lot of sides would have lost, and France were very good. But the way England came back to win against Ireland and Wales was awesome – and while the game against Scotland was not pretty, it was a good result.”
Nowell believes that the bond within the England squad that was forged at the World Cup is still there.
“You can see they are still tight. We made massive strides in Japan – for instance, I spent time with Jamie George and Anthony Watson, and when Jamie came down to Exeter earlier in the season with Saracens we spent some more time together.”
The importance Nowell attaches to the brotherhood between players is evident when he talks about what he most likes about the day job as, “doing stuff with mates”.
He counts Chiefs and England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie as one of them: “I’ve played with Luke since I was four years old – we’ve both come through a great club and county system in Cornwall after starting at Penzance Newlyn RFC, and then we joined the Chiefs together.”
He says of the current England squad: “Many of us are now good friends. It’s hard to get that club feeling at international level, but the players are a lot more comfortable in camp than before.”
Nowell says that Scott Wisemantel, who stepped down as attack coach after the World Cup, had a big feelgood influence, and that they connected.
“Scott and I have a lot in common off the field in terms of what we enjoy. He is a keen fisherman, who likes the sea, and surfing. I did a fair bit of surfing when I was younger, and with my Cornish background coming from a family of fishermen, I’m the same.
“I spent a lot of time talking to him about things off the field – he’s just a good guy to go and have a beer with.”
Nowell says that new attack coach Simon Amor seems to have continued along the same lines as Wisemantel, acting more as consultant than dictator. “A lot of the tactical decisions are player-led, and in the Six Nations the boys looked pretty slick at times because the hands and running lines were good.”
He continues: “Owen Farrell and George Ford have obviously worked together a lot, and these two guys are some of the best in the world, and know so much about the England structure, and what works best for the team.”
He says that his wing rivals were also impressive: “Jonny May is class. He just gets better and better, and to see Anthony (Watson) come back strongly against Wales was a big plus.”
He adds: “We are all genuinely good friends, and the way they have come back from injuries, and are playing so well, is an example to me. The same is true of the positive way they talk to me and offer encouragement, and I’ve tried to do the same for them. We push each other, but we recognise we are all in this together.”
However, Nowell admits that the series of injury setbacks in and around the World Cup, which made him one of the walking wounded for all but 12 minutes off the bench against Argentina – less match-play than any other England player – left him bereft.
“Given how big the games were, and how much I wanted to be involved, it hurt the most. I was just getting ready to play again, and not getting a proper run in Japan because of the hamstring, on top of all the others, was the maximum in terms of frustration.”
However, Nowell’s poacher’s instincts are so well-honed that he made the most of that 12 minute cameo by producing one of the best finishes of the tournament against the Pumas, bumping off three tacklers before scoring a sensational diving touchdown.
The try left him under a cloud, in terms of a hamstring tear, but it had a silver lining in terms of a moment to cherish. So, did he feel ecstatic?
“At first it didn’t feel like it, because I did the hamstring before I scored. It all happened so quickly, bouncing out of those tackles. However, it was a great feeling – especially because I had no game time before that match. It’s definitely one of the best tries I have scored at Test level, or anywhere. It’s right up there.”
What about the Red Arrows-style dive and twist in the air, was it practice or instinct? “There have been times when we have trained with mats and tackle bags, and guys trying to take you out, so, it’s a little bit choreographed. But I’d say it’s more instinctive when it’s during a match.”
The price Nowell paid was being ruled out for the knock-out stage, and it leads to a revealing commentary on how he copes with the demands of pro rugby, especially in terms of striking a work-life balance.
“When you get injured at your club you go home, and you can switch off, and be with your family. Whereas during the World Cup, you are 24/7 with the squad, and with the medics, so it’s a bit more fatiguing in a way…
“At home, there is nothing to show that I’ve got anything to do with rugby. There are no shirts on the wall, and no trophies. I like to switch off completely. Obviously, I value all the honours, but it’s good for me to have a rugby-free zone.
“My daughter Nori is nearly two – my missus likes weird names – and having a little girl helps you to recognise that however hard it is dealing with injuries, there’s nothing that bad about it. It’s also a reminder of why you are playing a pro sport.”
Ask Nowell what he works at hardest and his focus switches back to work: “During my career I’ve struggled a lot with knee tendon and ligament problems – I had massive patella tendon trouble as a kid – so I work on my leg strength to prevent injury. I feel if my legs are strong it looks after knee and leg ligaments and tendons, so I spend most of my time on strength and conditioning. I do weights, and also plyometrics and agility work.”
Nowell has had a recovery suite built at home, in which there is an ice bath and a sauna. “I use the ice for an acute injury, and the heat treatment because it has the best results for me. So, I have a sauna every night, which also helps me to sleep better.”
Jack Nowell has earned that rest many times over, but now the Exeter and England wing has woken from his injury-hit slumber he cannot wait to get back to the business of scoring tries.
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