There were few more glorious sights than Jake Polledri with ball in hand. Grabbing a fistful of defenders, he would swat them aside with gleeful disdain; one after the other, they came and went; his giant legs hammering away like pistons, crushing any hopes they had of bringing him down. The sight was so striking it was almost comical.
His rise through the ranks was similarly arresting. Colston’s School became Hartpury, before transforming into Gloucester and, in turn, Italy, by the age of 23. At home on an international pitch as much as the playing fields of north-east Bristol. And yet, just days after his 25th birthday, Polledri sustained an injury that could have, maybe should have, ended his blossoming career. The past tense of those opening few sentences is poignant.
The moment itself came during an autumn international against Scotland. Italy had played their Covid-postponed Six Nations games against England and Ireland and then headed straight into the cobbled-together Autumn Nations tournament. In the 67th minute, on Fiorentina’s fabled Artemio Franchi turf, Polledri’s foot slipped from underneath him. His weight fell backwards and his leg bent in a way that it shouldn’t. The pain was immediate and excruciating.
It would be a while until he knew the full extent of the damage but, even though he’d not suffered a major injury before, something told him this was awful. Back home, there was no replay and radio silence; with everyone in his family watching on, panic set in.
“That must have been very difficult for my family watching. I didn’t pick up my phone for a long time as I was being spoken to by a lot of medics in Italian, only some of which I understood. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Mum and dad and Becca had no way of finding out how I was; they must have been beside themselves,” says Polledri.
His girlfriend Becca flew out to him immediately (quite the feat mid-pandemic) and escorted him home in what Polledri describes, understatedly, as a great trip. “She cares about me too much. She managed to get to Italy the day after the game and help me back, with my bags and everything. I couldn’t have done that without her. But being waited on hand and foot was so much fun, having her push me everywhere in the wheelchair – brilliant!” he says.
But it was just the beginning of the journey. The MRI scan was shocking: he had ruptured all three knee ligaments, torn his calf, his hamstring had been separated from the bone and he’d fractured his leg. What followed were sobering visits to the physio. Plans were laid out and prognoses made, long-term ones at that. But the ugly truth didn’t raise its head until they were back in Gloucester.
They told me it was called ‘foot drop’. It was possible the nerve may never return. I might never walk again properly, let alone play rugby.
“I was in the physio room and we were doing a few tests on my knee and Aaron Walters, my physio, started looking at my foot and asked if I could lift my toes. I said no. He asked me to try but I couldn’t. The room went very quiet and people went out to make phone calls; then Aaron came back in and said we were going to London, immediately. We drove very quickly; he should have had blue lights on his car,” says Polledri.
“We saw the knee specialist, Andy Williams; he quickly assessed what was wrong and identified that the nerve that allowed the muscle to operate my foot was damaged. They told me it was called ‘foot drop’. It was possible the nerve may never return. I might never walk again properly, let alone play rugby.
“The knee operation was another thing. I wasn’t aware that they were going to take a graft from my good hamstring to repair the bad one. When I woke up, I had two legs in bandages. And I was like, ‘Eh?’ Because when you’re in hospital and on a lot of painkillers, the doctors are like, ‘Sign this and sign that’ and I hadn’t read anything: me being me, I was just like, ‘Yeah, fix me up mate, I’ll sign anything’. So when I woke up I had quite the surprise to see both legs bandaged up.”
Polledri belts through the tale; his descriptions are detailed and peppered with black humour and his West Country intonation bounds along. The way he retells things, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was happening to someone else; you get swept up by his positivity. But surely it was worrying?
“I had another separate operation around February/March time. The nerve hadn’t responded in the way we needed it to. So I had what they call a decompression of the nerve. They went in to check that it wasn’t severed, because if it had been, it would have been game over,” he says.
“But luckily it wasn’t. Marco Sinisi was my nerve specialist, he was superb. He decompressed it, got rid of all the scar tissue and put it in the best place possible. And then it was a waiting game.”
Polledri didn’t know for sure how things would work out. Sinisi had told him that nerve damage is incredibly difficult to forecast.
“I think it was the 14th of October, 11 months exactly after the injury. We had to go in and have an EMG (Electromyography), which tests how, and indeed if, the nerve is regenerating. So, as you can imagine, that was quite a tense meeting: seeing if I would ever walk again properly. And, through a huge amount of prayers and luck, the news was good. It was and is getting better. And we are 99.9% sure that it will get back to the way it was. The question is how long it will take. No one really knows the answer to that.”
I wonder how anyone gets through all of this, not physically, but mentally?
Things are happening in and around the squad and I’m out of the loop… It’s like being outside of a shop looking through the window. You can see things going on but you’re not part of it. It’s brutal.
“I got through from the first operation to the second on naivety. I didn’t realise my knee had the sort of issue that it did. A second operation felt like a setback because by then I had been moving around in the gym, so to have another operation was tough. It hit home how serious it all was. But that was the summer and, you know, everything is better in the summer.
“I also set up a side business selling cider. That kept me focused on something; mentally busy. Looking back, I just tried not to sit down and dwell on it. All sorts of things can creep in and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
Polledri’s voice drops and slows as he adds: “Not being part of things was brutal. Being a rugby player is really about being part of the squad. It’s everything.
“The summer, when there were no games, is easy, but nowadays: I am turning up to the club to watch the boys play and things are happening without me. Things are happening in training, while I’m in the gym. You’re always finding out news second hand. It’s like being outside of a shop looking through the window. You can see the work going on but you’re not part of it. It’s brutal.”
Polledri doesn’t have a return date. He reveals that that question is asked of him more than any other. And you sense that even if he did have a date, he wouldn’t share it. A wilderness like he has experienced means you get to keep certain things to yourself.
For now, he wears a splint to walk. If he took it off, you would immediately see his limp. He also wears it to train and is now running and moving quite well on the knee. The positivity returns to his voice. The nerve damage delay has weirdly worked in his favour; it has meant the knee has had maximum time to heal. He started properly running on it 12 months after the injury and the physio’s book says that he could have been back playing by then. That has helped him to trust the knee a great deal.
“The nerve specialist said the damage shouldn’t stop me doing the gym or bike work,” he says. “In fact, it helps; any of that stuff is trying to fire the signals through the nerve. I have a Powerdot (muscle stimulator) which I put on my tibialis anterior, the one on the front that isn’t working properly, and just sit there all day firing up the muscle. I also have an oxygen chamber at home that I sit in every day too. I’m doing a lot to try to help me recover.”
In the months away, he has gone back to basics. Polledri has spent time working on his running technique, something he’d not done previously. He has enjoyed falling in love with running again. Having had it taken away, he is appreciating the small things.
“I’ve had a few discussions, let’s call them arguments, with my physio about how much I can do but to this day, I haven’t won any of those arguments. But we’ve set ourselves different targets and I’m kind of pleased with how it’s going. I’ve not had a chance to think about the way I ran previously; my technique has improved. And my calves, for instance: we’ve spent a lot of time on different muscle groups.”
He is doing better numbers in the gym than he ever did. A Premiership bell should probably be sounded: Polledri’s own PBs are being bested. You begin to understand why he sounds so positive.
“I’ve had so much time. I’m definitely lifting more in the gym. I’m fitter on the watt bike. All my strength tests are going through the roof. My knee feels better than it ever did,” he says.
“I know others have said that isn’t usually the case, and I suppose it might not be once I get back playing, but the tests we are doing at the moment show that I am in a much better place than before.
At the start of this, I was determined not to be a sap and take the energy out of the room with my injury; I hope I haven’t done that. I’ve tried really hard to be the opposite and see the plus side to every situation.
“I’ve learnt a lot about myself: I’ve learnt that I can turn my passion into a business because I love cider; I’ve learnt that I can put on weight quite quickly when I’m not playing – that might be connected to the cider; I’ve learnt I have an incredible family and a club in Gloucester who will do everything to help, and I’ve learnt that I am quite positive.
“At the start of this, I was determined not to be a sap and take the energy out of the room with my injury; I hope I haven’t done that. I’ve tried really hard to be the opposite and see the plus side to every situation.”
We talk more about Gloucester and the way things have changed under George Skivington; how much more honest and tighter the group of players now stand. We talk about Barcelona and Xavi and how culture comes from the small things that individuals do, not the big things groups try to achieve. We talk about weddings (he has decided to make that wonderful girlfriend a fiancée) and his reluctance to get involved in any organising (he wants a quick wedding with a marquee and a lot of cider). We talk about social media and connecting with young people to ensure they are engaged with the game but, in the end, I feel obliged to let him go. I am reluctant to because talking with Polledri, despite his tribulations, makes you feel good.
And we shall have to see how long it takes for him to return. When he does, it will be quite the achievement. He laughs at my metaphor: of him sitting in a cave, just sharpening his tools, waiting to emerge on to the field once more. A dark cave, no doubt, the depth of which only he knows fully. But one in which he is rolling back the stone that has obscured the light for so long. Slowly but surely, the darkness is lifting. Polledri remains patiently within, for a little while longer. His view, however, is wonderfully bright.