Sam McNicol made his Super Rugby debut at just nineteen years of age.
Five years later, you could be forgiven for assuming the former Napier Boys’ High student had clocked up almost a half-century of caps.
Fate had other plans for McNicol, however.
“I’ve had a pretty patchy sort of last four or five years, on and off with rugby,” said McNicol at the launch of the 2020 Super Rugby season. “I haven’t managed to string too many games together.”
Patchy doesn’t quite capture the run of bad luck the Chiefs outside back has faced, however.
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Since 2016, when he was signed as a fulltime player by the Waikato-based franchise, McNicol’s managed just 18 appearances – including 11 in his first season.
Concussion has been the primary cause of the Hawke’s Bay flyer’s lack of caps – it’s what’s been keeping McNicol off the park for the Chiefs since part-way through 2017.
Fortunately, it’s been a while since rugby’s most insidious injury has reared its head.
“The melon’s good,” McNicol said. “I haven’t had a concussion for probably nearly two years.
“I had a couple of pretty long bouts of symptoms where they’d sort of last between two to four months. You just don’t know how you’re going to wake up feeling on any given day.
“You might start pretty well for a couple of hours then you might do some activity because you think you’re pretty good and then it might catch up with you for the rest of the day.”
Concussion wasn’t the end of McNicol’s problems, however.
A wrist reconstruction limited his club appearances last year and then in Hawke’s Bay’s first game of the Mitre 10 Cup season, McNicol succumbed to a high ankle sprain which ultimately ended his year.
“It was pretty frustrating but it sort of helps you grow as a person as well,” McNicol said. “Obviously we’re all passionate about rugby, but once that gets taken away from you for a brief period, you still have to find other things to keep you occupied.”
“I did a little bit of coaching stuff, just other things to keep me busy while I couldn’t have that competitive release, I suppose.
New @ChiefsRugby recruit Quinn Tupaea could add an extra dimension to the Chiefs midfield for their 2020 @SuperRugby campaign. @TomVinicombe spoke to the 20-year-old ahead of the upcoming season.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 3, 2020
“It was a good refresher mentally, but it was tough as well because obviously all you want to do is be out there and compete with your mates.
With fresh young talents announcing themselves every year, McNicol’s string of injuries could have been absolutely disastrous for the young outside back’s career, with his Super Rugby contract with the Chiefs originally set to expire in 2019.
“We were hoping I’d get a little more Mitre 10 Cup under my belt so I could sort of prove that I’m still up to (Super Rugby) level,” said McNicol.
“My Chiefs contract ended last year but they gave me an extension. 2020 is now my last with the Chiefs but I’m hoping to stay on.”
The contract extension could prove a saving grace, with McNicol now finally having the opportunity to once again showcase the skills that saw him picked to make his Super Rugby debut as a teenager.
It’s on the wing where he made a big impression for the Chiefs, but McNicol is equally as comfortable at fullback or in the midfield. So, where does the speedster hope to make a name for himself in 2020?
“Just on the paddock, really!
“At the moment I’m playing in the outsides with the Chiefs, spending a lot of time on the wing and fullback at training. I’ll sometimes slide into the midfield at training just to get some reps in there because you just never know how the season will pan out.
“I love midfield because it’s physical and you’re always involved but, then again, it’s pretty exciting out wide when you’ve got a little bit of space, especially when you’re playing outside people like Damian (McKenzie), who can create magic out of nothing.”
McKenzie’s return is certainly one of the most widely-anticipated events for the 2020 season after rupturing his ACL during 2019, and he’ll play a key role in the Chiefs’ back three. In fact, the outside backs will be pretty well-stocked if everyone is at full fitness.
David Denton held nothing back in a fascinating Rugby Journal interview that addressed the concussion which ended his career https://t.co/JA39NrznaV
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 12, 2019
Alongside McNicol and McKenzie, Solomon Alaimalo and Shaun Stevenson have also spent plenty of time on the sidelines over the last few seasons due to injuries. Factor in the likes of Quinn Tupaea, Bailyn Sullivan and Sean Wainui, who can all cover the midfield and the wings, and new coach Warren Gatland will have to make some incredibly tough selection decisions.
Tupaea, along with injured wing Kini Naholo, will be entering their first season of Super Rugby this year.
“Those young boys have been outstanding,” said McNicol.
“As young as the players are now, they’re really professional when they come in, they don’t have to have a real teething period. They’re in there and they’re just straight into it right away.
“There’s gonna be a lot of competition for spots this year – which is awesome in a team environment because it makes everyone better at the end of the day.”
Despite all the set-backs that McNicol has faced over the last three seasons, he has absolutely no reservations about returning to the fray.
“I think if I was sort of doubting myself and questioning myself then I’d also question my position in the team,” he said.
“I don’t really have any second thoughts about the physical stuff – it just happens. Rugby’s a game that’s physical, so injuries are gonna happen, I’m going to get injured again. But I love the physical side, that’s why I play.”
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