It’s safe to say injury is part of a sportsman’s lot. But there must come a point at which the next niggle, the next strain or the next tear becomes that burden too heavy to bear - the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Australian Rugby Sevens player Lewis Holland has had his resolve as an elite sportsman sorely tested this year with what must seem like one step forward then two steps back every time he looks to be making an impact in regular competition.
With a history of bad timing, Holland missed the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games – where the Aussies took out the Bronze medal - due to a hamstring problem. Halfway into the following HSBC World Series he suffered another muscle injury and missed the crucial two rounds of the Hong Kong and Tokyo legs – the Aussies taking out the Plate Final (5th) in Hong Kong, but stumbling badly in Japan the following week, ultimately affecting their chances at the automatic Olympic qualification being chased by the top teams that season.
He successfully returned twelve months ago to be a part of the Oceania Championship winning team – a title that saw Australia finally secure that Olympic qualification. Holland went on to start the last World Series well in the first two rounds and then ran out for the home team at the inaugural Sydney Sevens tournament in February and played some of the best rugby of his career, lighting up the crowd and making the tournament’s World Rugby Sevens Dream team.
Looking to continue this form into subsequent rounds the injury gods dealt another blow, when on the second day of the prized three-day Hong Kong tournament in April, Holland suffered an ankle injury which was expected to initially rule him out for just a month but ultimately ended his season and put his Olympic hopes in the balance.
With strong determination in rehab he eventually gained selection for Rio and all was looking good with hopes of a Sydney-like repeat performance in August.
On a day which went from the elation of being a part of the Olympic dream to spending more time with team physio Katie Ryan off the field than with his teammates on the field, Holland again suffered a hamstring problem in the early stages of the Rio competition, bringing his Olympic dream to a premature end.
With the dust having settled post-Rio and a well-earned break taken by all those involved in the Aussie Sevens Olympic journey, pre-season training began anew in early October. With a couple of lead-in tournaments in the end-of-year mix, players have had the prospect of getting some much needed game time before a new World Series gets underway in December.
Lewis Holland however must be starting to wonder if he has run over a black cat or walked under a ladder at some point, because just weeks into training he suffered the biggest injury blow of recent years – rupturing the Achilles tendon in his right leg – an injury that was immediately declared season-ending before it has even started, with the prognosis of an estimated twelve months on the sideline.
“I’ve had a fair few injuries but they’ve only been small four to six week injuries - or like my ankle before the Olympics which was a ten week injury – but this one is definitely on the more serious side,” said Holland.
Three weeks ago Holland underwent surgery to repair the tendon, then fronted up at the Central Coast Sevens tournament in NSW just days later to support the Aussie Men, as his teammates took to the field to stretch their legs and get their competitive juices flowing against some challenging local and international opposition, following the post-Olympics break.
On crutches and sporting a sizeable temporary cast on his lower leg, Holland spoke about his expectations of the weeks to come before looking further forward to the long road ahead.
“It’s a bit of a slow, tedious process. I’ll probably be in a boot with wedges for four weeks (after a fortnight in the cast), then they’ll lower me back down to the ground; so I have to get through those stages of being in the boot, then back to see the surgeon.
Then I (should) start rehab and it’ll all be about getting calf strength back and my range – it does take a long time though,” he said. While Holland has been told that recovery could be shorter than the full year, he knows that with the fast and explosive nature of the Sevens game he is better off accepting the need for the twelve month time frame for now.
“It’s probably worth just accepting the season is now on the backburner and I’ve got to apply myself in a different way to help the team. My mindset is that I’m out for the season so I’ll just go with that and if it comes back quicker and the stars align – which they haven’t of late but you never know – I could be back and I’ll definitely be back bigger, better, stronger and fitter,” he said.
So aside from his own rehabilitation, how does this key playmaker plan to remain in tune with and a part of this new look team which, according to coach Andy Friend, is now undergoing a rebuild with some fresh blood coming in as the squad looks to the big items on the competition calendar over the next four years?
“We’ve had a number of players leave who were regular starters in our side and offered a great wealth of knowledge about Sevens and the World Series. So my job now is to get these young blokes up to speed, offer a bit of guidance and mentor them, helping with things on and off the field - just trying to improve the younger mindsets so that when they do go into the World Series they’ve had that little bit of knowledge and they’ve been exposed to the thought patterns they will need in those games,” said Holland.
In the week that followed the CC7s tournament, Holland in fact had this projected role within the team made official, with the captaincy baton being passed to him by long-time leader Ed Jenkins who now sees his role over the next two years as mentoring the younger players and supporting the new captain with a well-measured handover of the leadership role and responsibilities.
The new role is initially being termed as that of ‘Club’ Captain due to Holland’s inability to take the field. So he will be taking the overarching leadership role with Andy Friend declaring a ‘tournament captain’ will be nominated for each round of the World Series.
While only 23, Holland has been a key member of the Aussie Sevens setup for almost six years and believes he has a lot to offer, even in an off-field capacity.
“I’ve played Rugby Sevens now since the start of 2011 when I was 17, so I’ve seen the game change a lot - I’ve seen a lot of things that will work and won’t work and things that we can try again. So I’m one hundred percent happy with applying myself in that manner and hopefully it becomes a positive and everyone gets something out of it. It will keep me in the team environment and in the right mindset – I just won’t be able to play,” he said with a rueful smile. Before this injury, the world of rugby may have looked like it was Holland’s oyster with so much promised, not only out of this year’s Sydney Sevens performance, but from across his career to date. But the new captain is fairly philosophical about the twists and turns of life and is even excited by what he sees in the future for his chosen sport.
“I have a mentality in life where things happen for a reason, so I just go along with the flow. At the moment I’m enjoying Sevens and on the back of it becoming an Olympic sport and the girls doing so well the sport is only going to grow - so I can’t wait for what it’s going to be like at the next Olympics. Even the Commonwealth Games, coming up in Australia, is going to lift the profile of Rugby not just for Sevens, but in general – you’ll get Rugby League players, AFL players, sprinters and more all coming in and trying out Sevens and they’ll fall in love with the game of rugby. Not everyone will be built for Sevens and they’ll probably realise that, give it a go and then hopefully they might filter into clubs and into XVs, which will just improve the strength of the rugby competition in Australia,” he said.
Although putting on what must be a brave front in the face of deep disappointment while feeling the frustration of the impending year off the field, Holland seems determined to combine dedicated rehabilitation with mentoring his new charges, supporting his veteran teammates and coming back ready to take on the world with a Commonwealth Games, a Rugby Sevens World Cup and an Olympic qualifying season filling 2018 and 2019.
“I’m glad that I can give back to Rugby off the field because I won’t be playing on the field. I’m happy with that because I know at the same time I’ll be getting through my rehab and preparing my body to return, so that when I do come back I’ll be the fittest, fastest, strongest you’ll ever see!”