Super Rugby will be the first major rugby tournament back on the menu this year with the competition set to resume on June 13th.
While many other competitions are suspended indefinitely, the likes of Japan’s Top League and France’s Top 14 have been completely cancelled, leaving a number of players who were based outside of New Zealand with some spare time on their hands.
Naturally, rumours have been popping up left, right and centre that the NZ-only edition of Super Rugby could welcome back some of the country’s former stars to the fold.
The Highlanders, in particular, lost a raft of talented players to Japan last year and enjoyed a slower start to the original Super season than their local rivals.
Elliot Dixon, Jackson Hemopo, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Marty Banks, Richard Buckman and Tevita Li all called time on their Highlanders careers at the end of last year and it showed in the results with the southern men managing just one win from four matches.
The new semi-season will only make things tougher for the Highlanders. Their four Kiwi rivals were all ranked in Super Rugby’s top six before the competition was called to a halt and now the Highlanders will be expected to play those top teams week-in and week-out.
While there have been no confirmed new contracts as yet, one man who definitely won’t be jumping back into a Highlanders jersey is Elliot Dixon, who played more than a century of games for the side over nine years.
Dixon is currently contracted to Ricoh Black Rams and despite being back home in New Zealand, won’t be available for his former side. That’s not necessarily because he’s prevented from doing so by his new club, or because the Highlanders haven’t come calling, however.
As a dynamic and physically confrontational loose forward, Dixon has been beset by niggly injuries over his 10-year professional career and the extended break from the game is exactly what he needs to get his body back in top condition.
Even prior to the Top League’s cancellation, Dixon was set to undergo back surgery that’s been on the cards for a number of years.
“I’ve been planning to get it done for a while and it just so happened that the coronavirus kind of threw our season off so I got permission by Ricoh,” Dixon told RugbyPass from his home in Christchurch, the city where he was born and raised.
“I’ve had a bad back since 2016. It’s just been progressively getting a little bit worse every couple of months and then I was just about to get it done, that’s why I flew back, and then lockdown happened so it got delayed.
“It’s just an S1-L5, just a herniated disc, so they’re just going to clean that out – not fusion or anything like that, which is good. We’ll just see how that goes and hopefully that will free up the nerve pain and stuff like that. Recovery time is pretty quick, which is good, and then I’ll be back into it.”
Dixon was one of the side’s key enforcers during his tenure with the Highlanders and threw himself into countless rucks, mauls and tackles so there were plenty of opportunities for the loose forward to inflict a little bit of lasting damage upon himself.
“I can’t remember a particular incident [that caused the problems] but I just started getting numb pain down my legs and stuff like that after running and after training,” Dixon said.
“Then I’d get a sore back or tight hammies or other referral pain, so I didn’t really get it checked out properly until 2018. I got an MRI and that showed the herniated disc and then I got a couple of injections which kind of took the symptoms away but then it came back with a vengeance after three months so we decided after this season to get it done.”
It’s a problem that’s been brewing for almost half a decade now and although it’s caused a few issues in the past, Dixon’s just grateful that bone fusion isn’t required because that could impact his flexibility and movement in the future.
“If you get a fusion then that’s about six months [of recovery time], and then return to play,” he said. “But then, of course, I’m here without physios and stuff so it’d probably drag on a little bit longer.
“There’s a lot of contact in the flanker jersey and jumping in the lineout and in scrums and stuff like that – although I don’t do too much in the scrums anyway, just poke my head up and wait until the balls gone or check the refs got his back turned and run away.
“But I think in any contact sport, you’ve got to be a little bit more careful with those kind of injuries and just take a couple more months – which we’ve probably got now because we’re not starting until January next year anyway so I’ve got a lot of time which is perfect. I can slowly do my rehab and don’t have to push anything to get back to a certain date.”
Of course, although Dixon has rehab to focus on for the next while, it doesn’t make the prolonged absence from the game that he’s been sharing with professional players around the world any easier and he’s struggled somewhat to keep himself occupied.
“It is a long haul but I’ve just got to think of it as a chance to work on niggles and work on different parts of my body that I haven’t been able to do for a while,” Dixon said.
“I don’t have one of those nice homemade gyms like some of the boys; I’ve just got the kids to pick up and put down and throw around on the tramp, so that’s what I’m doing.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 13, 2020
Thankfully, the continued lockdown hasn’t harmed the humour that Dixon was well known for during his time in New Zealand.
“The wee one, she’s only four months old so she’s not heavy enough to do a bench press with or anything like that. I’ll just have to wait until old mate turns 5 and then he should be getting to about 17, 18 kgs – that’s enough for me.”
While Dixon’s rehab won’t lend him the chance to don the blue jersey of the Highlanders once again, he suspected that a few of his former teammates could potentially get the opportunity.
“It just depends on what the clubs are willing to do,” Dixon said.
“I suppose they probably don’t want to be paying their players for a chance to maybe get an injury but if they’ve got a good relationship or partnership with the club then I suppose they could definitely send some of their players to come play Super Rugby, for numbers.
“I’m sure that there’s enough New Zealand players that are wanting to play but I’m also sure that there’s going to be a lot of injuries. New Zealand vs New Zealand for what is it, 20 games? I’m glad I’m not doing that.
“They’re always the games on the calendar where you note that you’re not going to be able to walk for a couple of days afterwards so you’re not going to be training until Tuesday. If you’re doing that week-in, week-out for four weeks, it’s going to be tough.”
While the thought of a number of New Zealand’s top former players potentially returning for the upcoming refreshed Super Rugby season would whet the appetite of fans across the country (and potentially around the globe), some consideration certainly must be given to the athletes who are going to be slogging it out week after week.
There will certainly be some men who, after spending a few months causing havoc in Japan, will miss the physicality of Super Rugby – but there will also be plenty of players who left New Zealand specifically to avoid that physicality and wanted to prolong their careers.
Like Elliot Dixon, there will also be a number of professionals who simply need the rest from the game that they’re so rarely afforded due to the packed calendar.
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