If you want to get an idea of how highly Luke Jacobson is rated by the All Blacks coaches, you only have to look to his selection for last year’s All Blacks World Cup squad despite having almost zero experience at the international level. Unfortunately for the promising loose forward, he wasn’t able to clock up any minutes at the showpiece tournament and instead returned home due to lingering concussion problems.
It was a massive rollercoaster ride of a year for Jacobson, now 23 years old, who’s short professional career has been besotted by injuries so far.
His initial major concussive episode occurred in the final match of the 2018 Super Rugby season. A head knock against the Hurricanes kept Waikato’s new captain out of the entire Mitre 10 Cup season but the blockbusting loosie made a return midway through 2019 and forced his way into the All Blacks picture.
With just eight Super Rugby matches under his belt for the year, Jacobson was called up for an extended 39-man squad to play in the Rugby Championship. Although Jacobson didn’t get many opportunities to impress, just a quarter of a match against Argentina, the selectors saw fit to include him in their World Cup squad.
Before a match could even be played, however, Jacobson was on a plane home to New Zealand.
Still, the fact that Jacobson was even included in the All Blacks’ initial squad for the year – let alone travelled to the World Cup – was a testament to the man’s potential and performances in his season with the Chiefs. Furthermore, it was a season that had already been contracted due to concussion issues.
“My original knock was in-season with the Chiefs at a training,” Jacobson revealed to RugbyPass. “The Black Mamba [Angus Ta’avao] got me in a drill – he’s had a tendency for injuring some of our players.
“It was completely accidental, I managed to get a knee to my head. That was where that concussion started.”
That knock, suffered in May, kept Jacobson off the park for the Chiefs’ five remaining games of the season. He was still named in the All Blacks squad announced in July, however, despite not having played any meaningful rugby for almost two months.
“I didn’t play too much and that can take away a little bit of confidence but the coaches definitely didn’t look into that too much and backed what they had seen at the beginning of the year,” said Jacobson.
“I was reasonably happy with my Super year but, I mean, I definitely didn’t know that I’d done enough or anything like that. The competition in New Zealand is bloody strong, especially in the loose forwards, and I didn’t know who was in and who was out sort of thing.”
While players are sometimes notified in advance whether they have or haven’t made the national squad, Jacobson had to wait until his name was read out on television.
Luke Jacobson is one of the most promising loose forwards in New Zealand and, despite managing just 10 pro matches last year, was still selected to travel to the World Cup.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 17, 2020
“I found out when everybody else found out. I just sat down and listened to the announcement – I was sitting there with my brother – just on the lounge at my flat.
“I was pretty interested in who they selected in different positions and things like that because I had a few mates who were pushing for selection as well, so I wanted to see how they went. Once I heard my name, I didn’t hear any of the others anyway; I sort of just blanked out a little bit. I wasn’t really expecting to be bloody named an All Black.”
Jacobson earned his debut against the Pumas in Argentina, playing 20-odd minutes off the bench in the closely fought 20-16 win.
There was a good chance the Cambridge-born product would have played against Australia in New Zealand’s final game of the Rugby Championship, too, having emerged unscathed from the match against the Pumas, but it was in the lead-up to the Bledisloe when the concussion problems from earlier in the year seemingly resurfaced.
“I got back playing, I’d rested and I was feeling sweet – and then something just got stirred up,” Jacobson said.
“I don’t know if you would call it concussion, exactly. After talking to some people, it can just be – I don’t know what you call it – just like a neural sort of thing that gets triggered? I’d get headaches but it’s not from a concussion, it’s just triggered from maybe a neck injury or something like that. That happened just holding tackle bags.
“I didn’t go to Australia for that Perth game because of it but I got that cleared up and then against Tonga, I got hit again. Maybe, looking back on that, I hadn’t let it recover as well as I could and I was maybe a little bit more susceptible to it at that time.”
Despite that admission, there were zero signs prior to the match with Tonga that Jacobson wasn’t fully fit and ready to play – perfectly illustrating how insidious concussions can be.
“Immediately after the [Tonga] match, I said to the doctor, ‘Well, I might have taken a bit of a hit but I’m feeling all right now so I’ll just let you know.’ The next morning, I was feeling all good and so they decided they’d still take me over [to Japan] but then before we even flew out I was starting to feel pretty ****. Once we got over there, I wasn’t feeling flash at all.”
The dream was slowly turning into a nightmare for Jacobson. Having recovered from injury after injury, the back-rower had made it to the cusp of playing in a Rugby World Cup but was now staring down the barrel of being pulled from the competition.
As anyone who’s experienced serious concussion before could tell you, it’s not an injury you can simply grit your teeth at and ‘push through’.
“Everybody’s different in the symptoms they get but a lot of mine were headaches and just not feeling very clear-headed,” said Jacobson. “When you go out and try to train with that, it’s pretty hard to focus on what you want to do and you start thinking about your headaches and you start dropping the ball, you start making mistakes – things that you usually wouldn’t do. Then you get frustrated with yourself so it’s sort of a bit of a snowball effect and that makes you feel not so good about yourself at night. It was pretty tough sort of thing to push through.
“I mean, I tried to give it every chance I could, but you sort of just know. Especially for me, I was at the bottom of the [All Blacks] pecking order and I was still trying to learn, fit in and, I guess, perform to their standards. If I’m doing that inhibited, I’ve probably got a pretty terrible chance of performing or getting up to their level. So I tried to give it every chance, but I knew that if I couldn’t give it my best then I wasn’t going to be good enough to be around anyway.”
While Jacobson was never going to be ready to go in New Zealand’s opening game of the World Cup, there was a slim chance that Jacobson may have recovered in time for the other matches of the pool stages (though hindsight now suggests otherwise), but with squads restricted to just 31 players, there was little room for the All Blacks to accommodate an injured Jacobson, given there were other out-of-commission members of the squad.
“As soon as a player goes down in the World Cup, you don’t have heaps of men in the squad, so you’ve got to start thinking about what works best for the team,” said Jacobson.
“Matt Todd was carrying a bit of an injury at the time as well, so we hardly even had the loosies to play the game that weekend. Shannon Frizell came over [as Jacobson’s replacement] and was put on the bench straight away so that shows how thin the squad was over there.
“So the decision was made pretty early – by myself and the coaches and that – what was best for me and what was best for the team as well, and that was for me to go home, rest and get right for 2020.”
Jacobson flew into Tokyo on September 9th and was ruled out of the World Cup within a week. That departure didn’t hamper the self-proclaimed optimist’s spirits or want to succeed, however, and the loose forward set about getting his body right for Super Rugby 2020.
While Jacobson could have played some matches for Waikato in the latter stages of last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, the decision was made that he would rest up and prepare for this year’s Super Rugby season.
The usual wind-up merchants have been quick to jump out of their holes to criticise Sam Cane's early appointment as All Blacks captain. They should probably crawl back to where they came from, writes @TomVinicombe. https://t.co/TJ4L0AHTuj
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 22, 2020
“I probably could have played some of that rugby but back when I got sent home from the World Cup, I think the idea was that if I wasn’t going to be playing at the World Cup, I wasn’t going to be playing any footy at all,” said Jacobson.
“First of all, it was probably a mental thing. I’d just had one of the most exciting moments of my life, getting chosen in the World Cup squad. Then, not being able to do that and instead coming home to play the Mitre 10 Cup… No disrespect to the regional comp here, it’s a bloody good comp, but it’s probably not quite on the pedestal as the World Cup. That would have been very tough for me to get up for.
“But, also, if my head wasn’t right to play at the World Cup, why would I play rugby at all for the next wee while? So they gave me a three month’s stand down so that I could hopefully get over my concussions and then, this year, just focus on footy without having to worry about my head.
“I think a little bit of what happened at the World Cup was I’d had a concussion that didn’t get to recover as well as it could have before I got back into rugby so we just wanted to give it a decent amount of time to make sure it’s right.”
Unfortunately for Jacobson, that wasn’t to be the end of his injury problems – but the uncertainty and severity of head knocks hasn’t troubled him in 2020. A problematic hamstring restricted the Chief to just 10 minutes of Super Rugby action prior to the COVID-enforced suspension of Super Rugby and a fractured hand suffered against the Blues two weeks into the competition restricted him to just one further appearance – against the Hurricanes over the weekend.
While the injuries have no doubt frustrated Jacobson, they’re nothing compared to the torrid time he’s had to endure with concussions and, if anything, it’s given the up-and-coming forward even more opportunity to ensure his head is absolutely right before taking too many hits.
It’s now been almost a year since Jacobson has experienced any concussion symptoms and, following his latest set-backs, the 23-year-old is ready to earn his spot back for Waikato and, should the selectors come calling, the national side.
While an All Blacks recall might not be on the cards for 2020, the Mitre 10 Cup kicks off early next month and it’s safe to say that Jacobson will be pumped to get some meaningful minutes under his belt in the red, yellow and black hoops of Waikato for the first time since 2017. Even despite his limited game time, who knows what new NZ head coach Ian Foster is thinking? Jacobson was summoned for the national side last year despite not having played much rugby at all – perhaps Foster will just be content to have one of the nation’s most promising loose forward talents back in the squad.
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