On the eve of his 50th Test, Lood de Jager says perennial injury troubles of the past have taught him the value of appreciating every moment of his Springbok “journey”. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
When De Jager runs out ahead of the Springbok team at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium – as is customary for a player reaching a milestone such as 50 Test caps – he might well take a few extra seconds to soak in the moment.
To arrive at this point in his career has not come easily, and although he is just 28 years old, there were times when De Jager was left questioning his future in the game.
Who can forget the moment De Jager left the field prematurely in the 2019 World Cup final, painfully clutching his arm after suffering a serious shoulder injury.
Later he celebrated the Boks’ triumph with his arm in a sling, quickly coming to peace with the trade off of accepting another required surgery in return for a World Cup winners medal.
It added to an already long list of injury layoffs and surgical procedures. And then, just as he had returned to fitness, the game as a whole was brought to a standstill by the pandemic.
When the English Premiership resumed in August last year, De Jager was just starting to bank some long-awaited game time before he was forced onto the sidelines once again, having injured the same shoulder that he had been left clutching in the 2019 World Cup final.
Earlier this year, he revealed in an interview with SA Rugby magazine just how significantly that setback had affected him.
“It felt like the end,” he said then. “I was sitting in the change room afterwards, crying my eyes out, because I didn’t know what the future would hold for me. Maybe that sounds dramatic … but I was very low.
“I had come through so many injuries before, but this felt different. I started to ask myself uncomfortable questions. Is my body built for this game? Am I fighting a losing battle?”
Once again, though, De Jager accepted the cards he had been dealt, and worked his way through another period of rehabilitation before returning to the Sale Sharks, where new director of rugby Alex Sanderson joked that the Bok lock boasted “two metal shoulders”.
What followed was another unforeseeable injury that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man.
In a freak training ground accident, De Jager suffered a broken fibula and tore knee ligaments, throwing his involvement in the Lions series into renewed doubt.
Somehow, he fought his way back yet again, playing a key role off the bench in the second Test against the tourists, before returning to the starting lineup for the decisive series-deciding third match.
De Jager’s roller-coaster ride to reach 50 Test caps has been a remarkable “journey” of resilience.
The towering lock remains one of the most good-natured and popular figures in the Springbok team, and it translates to his media interactions, where he is always jovial and engaging.
Following Tuesday’s team announcement ahead of this weekend’s second Test against Argentina, De Jager offered a wry smile when asked about all his injury troubles and what it has taken to reach his milestone.
“I’ve been fortunate to be part of the real highs [of professional rugby], and unfortunate enough to be part of the real lows over the past few years. Obviously I’ve had a few more injuries than the average guy, but that’s part of my journey. I believe everything happens for a reason, and you need to adapt and hopefully overcome those things and come back stronger.”
And how has he managed to regain form on the Test scene so quickly after so many stop-start injury setbacks?
“For me, who is not a naturally fit guy, it is quite hard,” he laughed. “You just have to try your best in training, but nothing comes close to game intensity and what you need to do in a game situation. But I think it was similar for all of us in that we didn’t have the preparations we would have liked to have before the Lions series, but that’s life.
“Then I also got Covid just when I was back from injury, and again that was something I needed to accept as part of the journey. It is tough to get match fitness, though, when you don’t have a proper pre-season or a long rehabilitation period when you can get up to fitness and simulate match situations in training.”
It will be a special moment for De Jager when he takes to the field on Saturday, and Bok coach Jacques Nienaber agreed that it would certainly be something special to celebrate in the context of his “journey”.
“He’s had his misfortune, like the shoulder injury he sustained at the World Cup, but he’s slowly getting back to his match fitness now,” Nienaber said.
“He’s put in just over 200 minutes, so he’s slowly getting back into the proper swing of things. I can only take my hat off to Lood in the time that I’ve worked with him, especially with the ups and downs that he’s had to face.”