The last time Luke Jacobson had any substantial minutes for a professional rugby side was in September, when New Zealand faced Tonga.
The then-22-year-old was in his first season with the All Blacks, who were in the midst of their preparations for the Rugby World Cup.
Despite notching up just eight appearances for the Chiefs during Super Rugby and only 24 minutes in his international debut against Argentina, Jacobson was named in the squad to travel to the World Cup – illustrating just how highly the All Blacks coaches rated the promising loose forward.
Unfortunately for Jacobson, coming off the bench against Tonga was going to be his last act on the field for his national team in 2019. In fact, since that game in early September, Jacobson has only managed a 10-minute cameo off the bench for the Chiefs against the Brumbies this year.
That’s due to a combination of lingering concussion symptoms last year and, most recently, a problematic hamstring.
Needless to say, it’s been a frustrating period for the Waikato-man – but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
“After six weeks off, it’s definitely right,” Jacobson told RugbyPass regarding the niggly hamstring issue.
“I haven’t been held out of rugby at all from my concussion this year. I was ready to go but then in the pre-season with the Chiefs, I did something to my hamstring and it just put me on the sidelines for a few more weeks.
“Then, I got out for 10 minutes against the Brumbies and re-injured it – that put me on the sidelines until isolation started.
Jacobson was technically fit and ready to go after a few weeks of rest but wasn’t named in the Chiefs’ touring squad for their cancelled trip to South Africa.
“I hadn’t played any rugby [since recovering from the injury] and the other guys in my position were playing bloody well as well so that there wasn’t room for me on the tour at that stage,” Jacobson said.
And while the Super Rugby suspension brought on by coronavirus has been a point of frustration for many a rugby player and fan, it’s given Jacobson plenty of time to ensure that his body is 100% fit for when the season kicks off again in mid-June.
“Isolation’s probably helped a little bit because I probably would have pushed to try get back a little bit early,” Jacobson admitted.
“I’ve been able to get in some real good training which I’ve been really happy with and get on top of a few other little injuries as well.”
Jacobson’s Chiefs haven’t been struggling with quite as many injuries this year as in the past – potentially due to the changes at training made by new coach Warren Gatland, which means that the abrasive flanker-cum-eighthman may face a tough struggle to force is way back into the squad.
Captain Sam Cane is an automatic pick while Lachlan Boshier’s performances have been second-to-none on either flank. Mitch Karpik and Pita Gus Sowakula have also had their moments while the likes of Mitchell Brown and Tyler Ardron have gone from strength to strength playing lock.
“We’ve had good competition in amongst us loosies and I think this year it’s shown a lot,” said Jacobson.
“Sam Cane’s always been the bloody leader there but we’ve got a lot of good competition between the rest of us and it drives you pretty well. There’s definitely not much of a drop off from player-to-player and we all bring different things to the game.”
Jacobson is also appreciative of Brown and Ardon’s exceptional contributions in the second row.
“It’s been working well for us this year,” he said. “I guess we probably are just a little bit short on genuine locks – big tall bastards – but I guess Tyler and Mitch probably bring something else to the game that maybe those big locks can’t.”
When Super Rugby returns next month, New Zealand’s five franchises will duke it out for ten weeks on the trot (with each team handed two byes) and, given the intensity and physical requirements of the local derbies, it’s hard to imagine coaches not rotating their players regularly.
One way or another, Jacobson will add some more minutes to his Super Rugby ledger in the coming months and while he will simply be happy to get out on the pitch and play some footy, the long-term goal must be to earn his spot back in the All Blacks.
Big things were expected of the Chiefs' 10 in France but the reality was disappointing. Still, no one would question the ability of the playmaker now that he's back in NZ. @TomVinicombe spoke with Aaron Cruden about his return. #SuperRugby #AllBlacks https://t.co/57nyavRSqb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 10, 2020
Jacobson should take plenty of confidence into the re-formatted season, given that the national selectors opted to take the loose forward to Japan last year despite his limited experience.
“I didn’t play too much [in 2019] 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,” Jacobson said.
“I’m confident I can definitely get back to where I was but I know it’s not going to just happen, especially with what’s going on at the Chiefs at the moment as well. I mean, I’m going to have to work hard just to try and get back into the team here.
“I’m definitely not going to be taking anything for granted. I’m going to put my head down like anybody else but just worry about what’s in front of me first, rather than thinking, ‘I’ve got to be back in the All Blacks’ sort of thing.
“I’ve got to get back into the Chiefs first – into the XV and then go from there sort of thing. That still all seems quite a long way away at the moment.”
There’s no question that Luke Jacobson possesses the skills, attributes and mentality to play at the highest level of rugby and the 23-year-old is better versed in returning from injury than most of his peers. While his teammates and rivals have already been clocking minutes up across the park this year and showing the national selectors what they’re capable of, Jacobson now has the rare opportunity to enter what could be the toughest Super Rugby season on record with a completely fresh body, ready to do some damage.
It will take some brave men to take down the rampaging loose forward once he finds his feet back on the field – and it would take braver men still to predict that the black jersey isn’t back on offer for Jacobson again in the near future.
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