Watching Kurtley Beale roll around on the turf of Allianz Stadium in excruciating pain was extremely difficult to watch.
I was standing on the field as Kurtley ran past me less than an hour before, the first of his teammates to run out for the warm up.
Armed with his usual wink and cheeky grin, he had a spring in his step that exuded the confidence and belief fitting for an athlete soon to become one of the world’s highest paid rugby players, and deservedly so.
As a player, he has been a standout from when he was a young kid to the biggest stage at last year’s Rugby World Cup, but in that time Kurtley has grown not only as a player, but as person. He is a leader. He leads with his performances and the energy he brings to those around him.
There are few players that instill belief in their teammates just by standing next to them in the change rooms. Kurtley is one of those.
As a highly tuned athlete, the world can come crashing down from significant heights when you lose the most important tool to your success. Your body. Everything can go from being perfect and exciting to confusion and doubt in one unfortunate twist, one unfortunate hit.
From the best in the world one day to a hospital bed waiting for an operation the next, there are so many thoughts that enter your mind. The battle becomes not only physical but mental. How long until I will be back on the field? How long until I am back to the form I was in before the injury? How will the team perform without me? How can I help the team if I can’t be on the field with the guys? And then the toughest question of all… Will I ever get back to my physical ability before the injury? All these questions are being thrown around in your head, not just once but constantly throughout the process of rehabilitation.
Forget the physical pain - that comes and goes. The pain of the unknown and not having the answers to the above questions is the most difficult to conquer.
I was fortunate to only have two significant injuries during my 14 years of professional rugby, both of which sidelined me for four months. Both ankle injuries which required surgery and both occurred when I felt I was at the top of my game!
The journey back to full fitness begins the moment you understand its severity. Do I need an operation? Yes. How quickly can I be operated on? The sooner the operation, the sooner I am back on the field. Every day matters. Who else has had the same injury as me? How long did it take them to return? What was their performance like when they returned? Once these questions have been running around your mind and the operation is performed, then your mind turns to rehabilitation.
Doctor, how long will I be on crutches for? Can I continue upper body weights? How do I keep every other part of my body as strong as it was pre-injury without the use of my injured leg? What exercises can I do on my injured leg to minimise muscle wastage? When can I start running? When can I start to change direction? When can I train at full speed? When can I start contact and full game simulation? When can I play?
Spectators don’t see what happens at training but it is often the injured players who are working and training harder than the entire squad as they push to be back with the team.
It is this resilience, persistence and determination that often sets apart the players who have lengthy careers from those who have fleeting ones. To go from being among the world’s best, to the sideline and back again you need incredible discipline. It is this strength and patience that sets people apart.
This is the challenge for Kurtley. He was the best in the world and he will be again. He just needs to answer the questions, jump over every little hurdle, cut no corners, be mentally strong, draw on the support around him, and most importantly want it more than anything else.
I’ve been asked many times about the hardest thing I ever faced in my career, and I’ve played in some massive games at some very intimidating venues, against the best in the world.
I loved that and thrived on that and that always brought out the best in me. Without a doubt, my toughest challenge, my toughest opponent, was always injury.
For at full fitness, I believed I could be the best in the world and when you’re injured, you’re at the furthest point from that, leaving just a giant mountain to climb.