Nor wonder Jack Nowell and Manu Tuilagi are increasingly close friends. Both should be at the peak of their careers but injuries have collectively restricted them to a total of 10 Tests for England since the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Nowell has not worn the red rose in the southern hemisphere since his country last toured Australia six years ago .
Hence the Exeter wing’s mixed emotions before his latest impending comeback to England’s matchday squad for the first Test against Australia on Saturday. For all his personal relief from him to be involved again having a broken arm against France in March, he retains significant sympathy for players such as Tuilagi who are still having to endure the mental strain of endless rehab.
The pair recently spent time together socially, taking their respective kids to a soft‑play center near Tuilagi’s home and trying not to dwell on the stark fact they last started a Test together for England in March 2019. Their career tallies – Nowell has won 39 England caps in eight years while Tuilagi has collected 46 since his debut in 2011 – also tell a story. England play an average of around 12 Tests per year so at least half their combined Test careers have effectively been spent on the sidelines. As Nowell says: “If anyone works out how many weeks that is, please don’t tell me. It’s depressing, isn’t it?”
It is not just their head coach, Eddie Jones, who is now hoping both men can regain the necessary fitness and form to sparkle at the World Cup next year. If it does happen there will be a shared nod of recognition across the dressing room between two players who know exactly how deep the other has had to dig.
“We kind of both know what we’re going through,” Nowell says. “A lot of the lads who are fit all the time and are lucky enough to stay injury-free don’t really get that. When you see the darkness of it… it’s quite tough.
“I speak to Manu quite a lot. When we’re in camp I quite often room with him, our partners are quite close and our kids are a similar age as well. He’s always one of the first people to text me when he hears I’m injured at club level and vice versa. During the Six Nations we laughed quite a bit because we were always missing each other [because of injury]. We kept saying we were like ships in the night.”
In the 29-year-old Nowell’s case there has been a litany of issues, from toe ligaments to hamstrings before his fractured arm in Paris. “It was just one of those things. I jumped up for a high ball, landed on it funny and had a clean break of my radius.
“The injuries I really did struggle with were the muscle tears and then rushing to get back after I’d had my foot operated on. I was desperate to get back for the autumn but I didn’t make it because my foot wasn’t right. Then I was desperate to get back for the Six Nations, rushed it and tore my hamstring. But, touch wood, I feel I’m in a good little spot at the moment.”
If the ever-optimistic Cornish fisherman’s son does need fresh motivation it is very often Tuilagi’s example that generates it. “Manu’s in a similar position to me in terms of his injuries from him but he’s always so positive. The energy for him to get back is always there. I also try to be like that. At the end of the day, we’re injured and it sucks but things could be a lot worse.”
Beating Australia in the forthcoming best-of-three series would be an ideal pick-me-up, with Nowell also looking forward to renewing acquaintance with his former Chiefs teammate Nic White, now a key figure at scrum-half for Australia. Nowell was a member of the England side who won the corresponding series in 2016 by a 3-0 margin and would love to replicate that triumphant feeling. “Winning is what makes the tour so good. We’re here for the same result,” he says.
Whoever starts in their back division, England will be looking for a smoother ride than some squad members enjoyed on a midweek fishing trip in increasingly choppy water. “I think they caught three fish between them and 80% of them were seasick the whole time,” reports Nowell, who shrewdly stayed ashore and instead spent the afternoon relaxing in a sauna and flotation tank with Joe Cokanasiga.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism