When Nick Malouf ran onto the field in Las Vegas last month, the weight of an almost two year lay-off from World Series competition had been lifted.
Malouf has been in the Australian Men’s Sevens team since 2012 and he played every game of the two World Series seasons prior to rupturing his ACL at training in late 2015, starting the two hardest years of his career.
“The 20 months I went between World Series fixtures was tough and it was always hard to watch,” he said.
“So it was really nice in Vegas to finally come back and get on the field and be a part of what I have been missing out on for so long.”
Adding to the occasion for Malouf was the return in Vegas of team-mate, and current Aussie Sevens skipper, Tom Lucas.
The two have known each other since childhood and not being from a very sporty family himself, Malouf credits the Lucas family for getting his rugby pathway started.
“I’ve been friends with Tom since we were five,” he said.
“At my tenth birthday we were playing a game of rugby in the backyard and Tom’s dad pulled my dad aside and said you’ve got to let him play rugby." - Nick Malouf
“So if it wasn’t for the Lucases I wouldn’t be playing.”
The bond between the two friends is strong and Malouf remembers receiving a call from Lucas immediately after he suffered a similar knee injury last year.
They have seen each other through rehab and their tandem journeys made a Vegas return extra special.
“I remember he called me and he’d just done his knee,”Malouf said.
“It was a tough conversation because obviously I had done the same thing but it was nice that he wanted to call me at the beginning of that.”
“So it was really great that we got to come back together – it was really special.”
While the wait was long, the approach taken to the timing of Malouf’s return was a conservative one in an effort to be certain there would be no risk of re-injuring that knee.
“I probably could have come back and played at the start of the year but we thought why not take that extra month just to make sure,”he said.
“When I finally got back out there I knew that I was comfortable in whatever happened and that my knee wasn’t going to let me down.”
The most difficult aspect of coming back has been to ‘catch up’ with the changes in pace and physicality in the game of sevens.
“I think it’s definitely gotten quicker again if that was even possible, and probably just the ferocity of the contact in the breakdown. It has certainly progressed a lot from when I first began to pre-Olympics and since then it hasn’t slowed down at all,” he said.
Malouf is adapting to being one of the senior members of the team now to whom the young players are looking for advice.
“I think the biggest thing is learning because that’s what I found so hard when I first began. It is so different to XVs and unless you’re taking in plenty of knowledge then it can slow your progression down. So they’re all really keen to learn and I’m more than happy to pass on anything I’ve learned,” he said.
He is also pleased with seeing some of that advice translated on the field.
“When you see them making such improvements on the field, it’s nice to know that hopefully some of what I’m passing on to them is helping them out,” he said.
The importance of having time away from rugby is not lost on Malouf and he is looking forward to completing his degree this year.
“I’m two subjects away from graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce from UQ (University of Queensland) so that’s pretty exciting that I’m close now.”
“Also, particularly during the period I was injured, I made it a big focus to get away on weekends as much as I could - a trip up the coast with my girlfriend, getting to the beach, catching up with mates. Those sorts of things are so important to mentally refresh you for when you get back to training on the Monday, so you can give your all again for that week.”
Like most young rugby players Malouf grew up playing XVs but was drawn to sevens for its pace, excitement and the open space a player has to exploit within the game.
“I always enjoy having so much space with the ball. I think being encouraged to play an exciting style of rugby is what really drew me to the sevens game and then obviously there is the fact we get to do so much travelling,” he said.
“I love going away and being able to experience different cultures, meet new people and see new places - I think it’s fantastic that we’re able to do that.”
Malouf is taking his return one tournament at a time. His main goal is to get some consistency in his performance and just add to his 25 caps. He is doing that with increasing success for himself and the team, having scored his 40th career try in Hong Kong.
“I think if I can get some consistency in how I’m playing and just enjoy myself being back on the World Series then that’s probably my number one goal at the moment – to just take each tournament and contribute to the team.”
Australia kick off this Saturday 15 April, Australia v Samoa 1.22pm AEST, All LIVE coverage on Fox Sports Ch506 begins 12.50pm – 9.30pm AEST