"I cried my eyes out" - Sydney Gregson on injury despair to another Premier 15s semi-final

After 13 months out injured, Gregson has certainly played her part in Saracens reaching the semi-finals this term
©Matt Impey - Wired Photos

"I obviously cried my eyes out!" says Saracens' Sydney Gregson reflecting on the toughest moment in her career.

"Trying to look ahead knowing that I would be out for around 13 months, it was just really daunting because I knew I wasn't going to be playing for the whole season. It was such an emotional rollercoaster."

It was towards the end of pre-season in the summer of 2021 - with the new Allianz Premier 15s campaign on the horizon. Gregson, in an intra-squad game, was tackled and landed awkwardly. As she went to step, her leg straightened and as she took a tackle, her leg extended backwards. 

She had suffered a serious ACL injury which would see her miss the whole of the 2021-22 season. 

"I was probably the fittest I'd ever been so it was so annoying!" Gregson says with a slight chuckle. "It was just a bit unlucky, really.

"Getting my head around how long I was going to be out for was quite difficult. When rugby is such a big part of your life, I was thinking, 'What am I going to fill my time with?!' You kind of, not lose a part of you as that sounds really dramatic, but obviously you are a rugby player. That is what you do and when you can't actually do that, it is like you're missing a massive part."

Gregson uses the word 'unlucky' when reliving her injury and you can't really argue with that description. Saracens had reached the Allianz Premier 15s final in the May of that year but they fell at the last hurdle against Harlequins.

On a personal note, it was Gregson's first season back at the StoneX Stadium following a stint with England on the World Sevens Series circuit but despite the hurt of losing to Quins, the now 27-year-old was raring to go again after a solid return in Saracens colours.

As it so happened, Saracens did go on to regain their title as they defeated Exeter Chiefs in last year's final but they did so without Gregson in their armoury.

Instead, the centre could only watch on as her teammates became champions for a third time.

"I think when you're not able to play, it almost makes you want to play even more," Gregson says. "It was great to watch the girls win the final, but you always want to be on the pitch yourself so it is really exciting to have the opportunity to actually play in another semi-final this weekend."

As Gregson alludes to, she is now preparing to face Exeter Cheifs this Sunday, with a place in the Allianz Premier 15s final up for grabs against one of Gloucester-Hartpury or Bristol Bears.

The talented midfielder has been a mainstay in the Saracens side en route to the semi-finals but when she first made her comeback from injury at the beginning of the season, the 13-month lay-off had created an apprehensive player rather than someone who is usually full of energy and enthusiasm.

"I think with this pre-season, I was really nervous," Gregson recalls. "I was honestly worried about getting injured again, worried about my knee and it was really difficult to get back into it. In the first couple of games, I was a little bit hesitant which I think is quite natural but the more I played, the more my confidence grew. It gave me that confidence that everything was fine, I was feeling strong and it was great to be back playing rugby."

No sooner had Gregson returned to the field against Bristol Bears in The Allianz Cup, injury stuck again. In a training session, she strained her hip flexor.

Eight weeks out. More rehab to come.

But she used her recovery time diligently in order to hit the ground running: "You are so up and down during rehab. You have good days and then the next day, you could take a backwards step or vice-versa but the second injury wasn't too serious," Gregson explains.

"I think I only missed two Prem games. It was towards the start of the season but it gave me time then to strengthen my knee. Even now, I still do that on my ACL side but it gave me time to make that leg strong again."

The date Gregson was working towards proved to be December 3rd 2022 when she made her first Allianz Premier 15s appearance for just under 19 months.

Despite her return coinciding with successive defeats against Harlequins and eventual table-toppers Gloucester-Hartpury, since then, Saracens have been a relentless winning machine with Gregson an important cog in it all.

The centre picked up the Player of the Match award following last weekend's 33-21 victory over Loughborough Lightning and that most recent triumph also extended Saracens' bonus-point winning run to 12 matches.

"Twelve league wins on the bounce, we've really turned it around since Christmas," Gregson, who also extended her contract with Saracens this week, says. "Every training session, we are getting better and better. That cohesion and the way we are playing with each other is building each week. We really push each other in training and that has also really helped get me back to where I want to be.

"I actually think we have had quite a few tough games now leading up to the semi-final which actually I think has been the best preparation. We've had to really dig in in the last couple of games. We've had to dig in mentally and really come together."

Fixtures against Exeter, the University of Worcester Warriors Women, Bristol and Loughborough have sharpened the minds of Saracens in a league which is becoming increasingly competitive. 

The rise of Gloucester-Hartpury, combined with the sustained progress of Exeter and Bristol, meant the three-time champions had to really battle to earn their spot in the play-offs this year. In fact, it is the first time since the formation of the Allianz Premier 15s that Saracens haven't finished on top of the pile at the end of the regular season.

"The talent of the league is so strong this year," Gregson says. "It has got stronger and stronger over the last three or four years. Each team now, the talent in there is something special. You can't take any game for granted. Any team that you come to play, anyone can win on the day. You have to stay switched on."

The increased level of competitiveness and the continuing spotlight on the Red Roses is only aiding the domestic game in receiving more publicity.

With the RFU also announcing they will be awarding a total of 32 contracts to England's top women's players in what they have described as a 'landmark' deal, the drive to maintain the growth of the sport is something Gregson is pleased to see.

Added to this, this weekend's Allianz Premier 15s semi-finals should also capture the imagination with a West Country derby followed by Saracens' trip to Sandy Park.

In two visits to Devon this term - one in the league and one in the cup - Gregson and her teammates have left empty-handed and they are also yet to beat Exeter on their travels since the Chiefs joined the top-flight in 2020-21.

To add to the task facing Alex Austerberry's side on Sunday, no club has ever won a one-legged semi-final away from home in the history of the Allianz Premier 15s so it could be a weekend of firsts for Saracens.

"It is always a highly emotional game between Saracens and Exeter," Gregson says. "We've had some really tough battles over the years. We've met them in semi-finals, we've met them in finals. The fact that it is a semi-final, the fact that it is away for us actually probably gives us a bit more of a hunger to win. 

"You have just got to think of it as another game but I think everyone is definitely really up for it. We have never beaten them at Sandy Park and I think I am right in saying, no-one has ever won an away semi-final. We want to make history and be the first to do that."

Gregson, of course, appreciates the challenge which lies ahead but considering how relentless Saracens have needed to be to reach the play-offs this season - plus the fact they are away in the semi-finals - if the current champions were to add a fourth title to their honours board, the centre admits it could be their sweetest to date.

"Look, the semi-final is first and we have to get that game right," Gregson says. "Don't get me wrong, it would be special if we did go all the way this year, especially considering the start that we had [where Saracens lost three of their first six league games].

"I don't think anyone would have expected us to be where we are now given the first few games of the season. It would be good to go all the way because of the quality of the league this yearWe really want to retain that title and show we can do it year on year and it isn't just a one-off but first, it is Exeter."

For Gregson, she is back doing what she loves. She is a player who is now oozing with confidence following an ACL reconstruction which could have knocked her for six. 

Getting her hands on another Allianz Premier 15s trophy is her one remaining goal for the rest of the campaign and if Gregson and Saracens were able to achieve this, those tears of despair and anguish she experienced almost two years ago will be replaced by tears of joy and ecstasy.