Bristol’s Sam Jeffries: “I had rugby taken away from me so to come back is a privilege” | Bristol

IIt wasn’t until Sam Jeffries returned home from England’s triumphant tour of Australia in July that he allowed himself a moment to reflect on his journey to international recognition. In his two-year “retirement”, all those nights in the gym or in rehab, he gradually found a way to restart a career without the chronic knee pain that had ended it abruptly, aged 26, back in 2019.

Jeffries’ story is one of perseverance, dedication and no small belief from Bristol, something he is acutely aware of when discussing his road to recovery – a feel-good story in a domestic rugby scene that could do with one at the moment. He is generous with his time – it’s not until after the interview that he reveals he needs stitches for a cut on his chin – and at the Bristol Bears’ high performance centre, staff are united in their praise of Jeffries’ character.

They know him well because when he had to admit that his patella tendonitis was too much to bear, Pat Lam appointed him as Bristol’s head of professional development such was the respect he was held in. It was a disastrous time because he was there helping players transition to life after rugby, as he lived through the same experience. However unlikely, the hope that he might one day play again never left him, but to go from returning to the Premier League in October to being sent to Australia to replace the injured Charlie Ewels was beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Knowing what I had experienced with that opportunity and thinking about things had been 12 months ago to where they are now, I would never have guessed it would turn out like this,” says Jeffries. “I was proud of how things had turned out, a lot of work has gone into it.” Jeffries was a latecomer to professional rugby, having completed his studies at Bristol University, but after playing a starring role in the Bears’ promotion-winning 2017-18 season, he was destined for big things.

However, what should have been a breakthrough year in the Premier League the following campaign was marred by endless pains with Jeffries managing just 27 minutes all season. “I was in constant pain,” adds the back row. “It’s incredibly challenging as a player because we live in constant pain anyway because of the physical demands of our sport. There are times when you know you can push through it, but I was at a stage where it was too much.

“At that point I knew something had to change and luckily the club was on the same page. It was the right decision at the right time. It turned out to be the best thing for me because I’ve come back stronger and stronger. In some ways I think that I’m very lucky to have what every professional rugby player dreams of – two years off to sort out all your issues.”

It becomes clear that such a positive outlook played a central role in Jeffries’ recovery, and what is most striking when he describes his comeback is that he was not prepared to give up the athlete’s lifestyle. Retirement did not lead to R&R or indulgence. He repeatedly talks about “strategies” to ensure his knees can cope with the demands of a modern rugby player with a pragmatism that belies the grueling months of trial and error, fitted around his office job, until he was pain-free.

Sam Jeffries returned to Bristol’s first team in the 2021-22 season Photo: Andy Watts/JMP/Shutterstock

“I always kept my aim to come back but I’d been in pain for almost 12 months, barely able to run, I thought my rugby career was over at that point,” he says. “So it was a really energetic, fresh start going into an administrative role here. With the shock of no longer being a player, it was good for me to have the experience so I could understand what other players are going through myself.

“All the time through that process I was determined to at least sort out my rehabilitation and fitness work because if I was going to come back to rugby I wanted to give it a full crack. I worked quite hard, while I was working on the office during the day, in the evenings I did gym, rehab and running – it was long days but it paid off. So through Covid we had a lot more time at home and it was a case of sticking to a daily regime – 30 minutes every night – doing it consistently over a period of months solved my problems.”

Jeffries’ research also led him to Juan Smith – the World Cup-winning Springboks flanker – who had struggled with similar achilles problems, taking an extended break before returning to excel with Toulon. Jeffries’ comeback was incremental, but first training with 18-year-olds fresh out of school – the same youngsters he educated about the importance of pursuits outside of rugby – then an A-League game at the end of the 2020-21 season.

Slowly but surely, and when Covid protocols allowed, he returned to first-team training and was contracted for the start of last season. There were setbacks along the way and Jeffries, now 29, questioned himself when he ruptured a ligament in his foot – “I felt, ‘here we go again, maybe rugby isn’t meant to be for me’,” – but after a couple of Championship appearances for Hartpury at the start of last season he went on to make 17 Premier League appearances for Bristol. “Everything after the injury was a bonus,” adds Jeffries. “I thought my career was over, so I came in with a positive mindset. I was still a little nervous because you still want to contribute, but I felt after a few games that I had the confidence that I could.

The pain still needs to be managed – “when you have peaks in loading, they tend to flare up and this summer, coming back to pre-season, on hard surfaces after a few weeks when your running demands increase” – but at 29, Jeffries believes that his best years are still ahead of him. After a first taste of the England set-up, first for the Barbarians game in June and then the Australia tour, he is clearly hungry for more and it helps that Eddie Jones takes a shine to players who have shown resilience.

Before that, however, is Saturday’s trip to Wasps as Bristol seek a second win of the season, and more importantly a determination to enjoy every moment along the way. “You can always live in the negatives of being a rugby player and all the things that bring you down,” says Jeffries. “But I had it taken away so I know what a privilege it is. To get 20 Premier League games [last season] and be where I am now, it has gone better than I ever hoped it would.”

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