Jack Nowell Exclusive - Injuries, England & his world of rugby

Jack Nowell is the current focus of Red Bull podcast, Decoding Athletes
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The last time I saw Jack Nowell, he was on a computer screen expressing his delight at winning the Premiership for the second time with Exeter Chiefs. 

There was a broad grin on his face, a grin that quickly became neutral when the 27-year-old was asked what his hopes were for the Autumn. It was there that Jack explained that he would be missing time with England in order to have surgery to repair a snapped ligament in his foot. 

Suffering the injury against Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final, Jack was told that he would be able to see through the season if he gritted his teeth through the pain. Winning the Champions Cup for the first time in Bristol and then a second Premiership crown two weekends later, those winners medals alone no doubt make all the pain worth it. 

Rehabbing the injury throughout the Autumn and Winter, the versatile back was forced to watch on as his England teammates lifted both the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup, at the tail end of February, prior to a trip to the AJ Bell, Jack was finally due to make his return against Sale.

“I was just training on the Tuesday, it was our last run through of the week, pretty much, and I felt my hammy rip a little bit,” Jack said. “It was just one of those things unfortunately and I was desperate to get back playing for England for the last two Six Nations games. I was desperate to get back playing for the club and it is just one of those things sometimes. 

“It is my own fault. I was the one that wanted to risk it and get back playing as quickly as I could. But you know what, it has just given me extra time to sort my foot out a bit more and make sure that is 100% before I am back playing.”

It is that drive and determination that has taken Jack to the very top of the game. Identified as a talent at a young age, whilst still at Truro College, as a 16-year-old Jack was playing men’s rugby with Redruth in National 1 and would be turning out for Exeter just two short years later.

Exeter won both the Champions Cup and Premiership last season

Making his England debut in 2014 under Stuart Lancaster, it became clear that Jack had all the ability to become a seasoned Test player. Not only is the 27-year-old quick, he is abrasive, unafraid of contact, has quick feet, is good in the air and uncompromising in defence. 

It is these aspects that have allowed him to become one of Eddie Jones’ most reliable players when available and to be identified as someone Warren Gatland wanted to take on the 2017 Lions Tour to New Zealand. 

Winning two Test caps in a Lions jersey, Jack of course wants to carry on writing his chapter in Lions folklore, but for now what stands between him and a spot on the plane to South Africa is time on the pitch.

Currently going to Sandy Park five days a week for treatment, it is hoped that sooner rather than later the wing will be gracing television screens once more. With this spare time on his hands, Jack has had to find some other ways to spend his time. 

Investing in Mustard, a clothing brand owned by a close friend, the majority of Jack’s time has been spent with his partner Zoe and the couple’s children; Nori and Zimi. That grin returns to Jack’s face when talking about his family, with him saying that their presence when walking back in the door from a day spent on the physios table has made the process all the easier.

“It’s weird, my partner actually said this to me this morning,” Jack said. “Although it is weird me being here, Zimi is our youngest who is eight months and I have been with her every single day of her like so far. Which is crazy because with Nori I was away in Japan with the World Cup, away doing the Six Nations and away every other weekend with the Chiefs. 

“I missed quite a bit, but with Zimi I have been here every single day. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been easy at stages and I have seen what it is like being a full-time mum and it is mental. 

“In terms of stuff away from rugby, if I have come back, been sore or something has not gone my way that day and I have come back in a bit of a shit mood, very quickly my missus will turn around and say ‘sort it out because the kids need you, you need to sort it out, you can’t be angry here, you need to get on with it’, which is good because when I get home it is forgotten about. It is all focussed on the kids then.”

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As watching from afar is all that Jack can really do at the moment, it seemed prudent to see what the 34-cap England international has thought of the national side. It is no secret that England have come under pressure in recent months for not playing an expansive game of rugby. 

Having been a major part of Eddie Jones' plans since the Australian took charge of the national team in 2016, Jack surprised me with his response.

“It is tough to be honest mate, because if I am honest, I have not watched it,” Nowell said, looking straight down his camera. “It has been on in the background and stuff, but I have not properly sat down and studied it and watched it, because I really want to get back playing. I really want to be back involved. 

“After the World Cup, I felt I had a disappointing World Cup, in terms of my contributions, so did what I did for Exeter (last season), missed the Autumn because of my foot and I wanted to be back for the Six Nations and wanted to be involved.

“Our physios and our doctors at the club said that was an unrealistic goal for me, but for me in my head, it was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to be back involved with the team and then not to be there now, it has been a bit frustrating. 

“It is the first time I have not watched rugby properly, because as much as I want them all to do well, and I want England to do well, I am very, very gutted that I wasn’t there. I have never really felt like that before. Maybe it was the fact that before (last Autumn) I had come to terms with the fact that I was going to miss these games, but this time I really wanted to be there.

“I had it on in the background a little bit, I’ve watched the odd four or five minutes of the game and then gone off and done something with the kids and then come back and it is still on. 

So far, Jack has collected 34 England caps

“From what I have seen, it is just a bit frustrating isn’t it? Rugby in general as the moment is a bit frustrating. The things I have watched, there is no lack of effort there. You can tell the boys are trying and you can tell they are giving their all, but sometimes it just doesn’t go your way.”

Whilst his clubmates Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Jonny Hill have all been heavily involved in England’s Six Nations campaign, that tournament culminating yesterday, but for Jack his main involvements in the past six months have come when watching from home.

Wanting to be back involved for the closing fixtures against France and Ireland, the 27-year-old saying that he has had limited contact with his friends in the squad.

“There is the odd text message and stuff like that,” Jack said. “It is one of those things where I want to be these and they are doing it, so you kind of just leave them to it. 

“That is the way I have approached it the whole time; just to keep my head down and just try to work on what I need to work on to get back there, because the more I think about it the more angry I get and the more gutted I get that I am not there and my body is not letting me do it.”

It was two weekends ago, whilst sat at a Baltic Ricoh Arena watching Wasps take on Gloucester, a tweet found its way to the top of my timeline. It was minutes following Ollie Thorley’s red card for a head-to-head collision with Rob Miller, the England international judged to have gotten his timings wrong in the challenge and was sent to the showers.

Since then, Thorley received a four-match ban, a ban that the Gloucester man is still seeing out. In response to this red card, Jack tweeted out his thoughts on the decision by saying ‘Ollie Thorley red card, my god’. 

For saying this, Jack received some backlash for his comments, and as the person who retweeted his words and, in some ways, feeling responsible, wanted to get the thoughts from the horse’s mouth on the current spate of red cards being brandished in the topflight. 

“Don’t get me wrong, more malicious head-knocks, if we use the Ollie Thorley one for example, if someone comes in flying into a ruck or flying into a tackle with their arm almost cocked by their side or no attempt whatsoever to even bring your arms up and hit someone in the head, I think there is no need for that in the game,” Jack said. 

“There is no place for that in the game. They are punishable offences, there should be bans, they should be red carded, and they should be stopped from playing for a bit. For example, in a ruck, if you come in from five meters away, sprinting, horizontal with your arms tucked in by your side, trying to hurt someone, for me that is a no brainer, that is a red card. 

“In rugby, and every player knows this, every single time I take to the field, I am not expecting anyone to touch my head. You will get hit in the head, you will get hurt, but every single player knows that. 

“I have spoken to a few boys about it. I have spoken to Ollie Thorley about it. I have spoken to boys at Quins, Northampton and no one really has a problem with it. What boys do have problems with is picking up four week bans for an incident they can’t really help changing.

At the age of 16, Jack was playing in National 1 with Redruth in his native Cornwall

“Get the words of advice from the boys who are playing or coaches or physios who are actually in the thick of it at the moment. Because I have spoken to a lot of boys that are playing at the moment and they are struggling to see the positives of it at the moment. 

“I am glad we got that one out there because I have got a lot of tweets and replies saying, ‘Jack Nowell thinks head contact is okay in rugby’ and stuff like this. I have to say, they have got this completely wrong, I am against that. I am against stupid behaviour on the field, but at the same time I know it is a contact sport and that is why I enjoy playing it.”

Joking that his coaches have asked whether or not they will see Jack out on the pitch at all this season, whenever he does come back to play it is clear that Exeter will be in contention for trophies. 

Already, Rob Baxter’s team are in the upper reaches of the Premiership table and are also in the knock-out rounds of the Champions Cup as Exeter look to defend each of those crowns.

Respite from not being out on the pitch has come in the form of Cornish Pirates’ start to the Championship season, his former loan team beating Saracens on the opening day of the season and following up last weekend against Richmond in London. 

But watching on can only go so far for a player who is so motivated to get back playing at the highest level possible. With so much time to sort out all the aches and pains plaguing him, Jack is keeping things simple for now, focussing on doing well for Exeter first before turning his attentions to any higher honours and adding to his 34 caps.

“I am really, really excited to get back playing, just so I can have my family watching,” Jack said. At the start it was a bit weird, we got used to it, whereas now boys genuinely do miss fans and families being able to watch because it does make a massive difference when you are playing. Some people might not think so, but I definitely prefer my family being there than not.

“I have a pretty strong feeling that my body is going to be in a real good position after this (injured period) to go out there and play. Obviously, I have not played in a long time, I may be a bit rusty at the start, but I am just desperate to get back and be involved with the boys again. 

“I have definitely got that hunger back a little bit. There have been a few injuries before where it has been a bit like, ‘I’ll go through my rehab and I’ll be back playing’. I genuinely actually miss playing with the boys. I have been out for 20 weeks or so now, so it has been a long time. 

“I am desperate to get back out there. In terms of my goals, it is pretty simple for me. I like to keep it simple. To play well for by club and if anything comes from that, hopefully it does, but the only thing I have got to focus on is playing well.”

This interview was possible thanks to Jack being a Red Bull Athlete. Joining an elite list of individuals to be sponsored by the conglomerate and has recently been the face of the Decoding Athletes Podcast. 

Hosting alongside BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Nick Bright, the pair take a close look at Jack’s career and motivations to decipher what has allowed him to become one of the top athletes in his profession.

Joined by other Red Bull athletes throughout this process, you can listen to the most recent episode of Decoding Athletes below: