‘Beyond what is possible’ – Full extent of Tom Curry’s ‘freakish’ injury comeback uncovered

Tom Curry trains in Japan this week

There are two things worth noting about Professor Damian Griffin. Firstly, he is this country’s preeminent hip surgeon who has operated on dozens of top-end athletes. Secondly, he is not a man who deals in hyperbole.

So when Griffin, the Professor of Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery at Warwick Medical School, states that Tom Curry returning to international rugby just six months after undergoing one of his most challenging ever operations is “spectacular”, it carries significant weight. Here Telegraph Sport is taken behind the scenes on Curry’s remarkable comeback from a career-threatening injury with Griffin, Sale Sharks physio Navdeep Sandhu and Jonas Dodoo, a sprint coach at Speedworks.

‘Not moving as he should’

Before being named on the bench for England’s opening tour match against Japan on Saturday, Curry’s last international involvement was winning his 50th cap in the World Cup third place play-off against Argentina last October. It would prove to be the last time that he would play rugby until the start of June. It would prove to be the last time he played rugby for another six months.

Curry was never far from the headlines at the World Cup whether it was being sent off three minutes into England’s opening game against Argentina to accusing South Africa hooker Bongi Mbonambi of racially abusing him in the semi-final.

Watching from afar, Sandhu noticed something else: Curry was hobbling when he was coming off the pitch. When he returned to Sale’s training base in Carrington last November he remained in significant discomfort when Sandhu carried out a re-entry medical. “When we got our hands on him you could feel the hip was not moving as it should,” Sandhu said. “Then you do certain tests. Firstly it was not really moving and secondly the end-feel was very hard and bony.”

A scan was ordered where the true extent of the problem was revealed. “It was like a scene from a comedy film,” Sandhu said. “Normally when you get a scan, it is just an A4 piece of paper but this one unravelled and it kept falling down with more and more frames.” Curry described the results as “a bit of a car crash”.

This was when they contacted Griffin. Hip operations are commonly carried out on adults aged 60 to 80, but Griffin became the first surgeon in the United Kingdom to specialise in athletes. “I got into that because there was no one doing that in the UK, hardly anyone in the world,” Griffin said. “Even now there are only a very small number of us who do this as our main event.” What was once a niche sideline became ever busier as he operated on footballers, rugby players, tennis players, golfers and track and field athletes.

Even so Professor Griffin was taken aback by the scale of the damage. “In terms of severity, Tom was at the most severe end,” Griffin said. “A lot of surgeons would look at him and say it is not going to work, that is just beyond what is possible.”

Curry had a condition called femoroacetabular impingement syndrome. Effectively, some people have a hip joint where the ball is not entirely round. Curry’s, appropriately, was shaped more like a rugby ball than a football, which as Griffin explains had severe consequences.

“If you don’t have a completely round ball then as it rotates it jams in the socket and that will limit your range of movement,” Griffin said. “Also it means you get some uneven wear and tear inside the joint. The damage in Tom’s hip was pretty extensive. There was a lot of wear of the cartilage and he had grown some substantial areas of extra bone.”

Griffin laid out four options: carry on in discomfort, retire, repair via surgery or replace, through the type of metal resurfacing that Andy Murray had carried out. The risk with surgery is when it is not successful and you need to replace the hip anyway. “It was almost like a grieving process at first,” Sandhu said. “Damian told us this is as bad as it gets for a sportsman’s hip. It was a lot to take in for a 25-year-old.”

Still they chose arthroscopic - or keyhole - surgery. The operation on December 4 at the Harley Street Specialist Hospital was scheduled to last two hours. It lasted more than six as Griffin as he reshaped the ball of Curry’s hip using a high speed micro burr and repaired the labrum and cartilage using a stem cell transplant.  “Arthroscopic surgery in the hip is a pretty specialised area that is pretty rare,” Griffin said. “I was doing stuff at the most challenging end of that kind of surgery. For that reason the surgery took several hours.”

Curry gets some treatment during the World Cup semi-final against South Africa
Curry gets some treatment during the World Cup semi-final against South Africa - Getty Images/Julian Finney

‘The most mentally resilient player ever’

The surgery was a success but that was less than half the battle. Now the long, arduous rehabilitation process would begin. Even accounting for what Sandhu calls Curry’s “freakish” ability to put on muscle, there are no shortcuts in rehab. You get out exactly what you put in.

“Tom is easily the most mentally resilient player I have ever worked with,” Sandhu said. “The ball rolled really quickly after the first eight weeks when you are letting the joint settle. The muscles started coming back and the movement feels easier. Eventually when we saw Damian four months post surgery, he was amazed. He said, ‘I have not seen someone look this good a year post surgery, even two years post surgery and you are four months’.”

Again building muscle and strength was only part of the process. The next stage was getting Curry back to his explosive best. Enter Dodoo and his Speedworks camp in Loughborough, where Curry started visiting at the end of March.

Dodoo compares Curry at the start of the process to a flat football: you can still kick it but it isn’t going to travel very far.

“The way he plays is a really fast, explosive, elastic player, but he had lost that explosivity and that elasticity,” Dodoo said. “Another way to look at it is that a tractor produces a lot of force. The amount of horsepower you can get out of a tractor versus a Ferrari might not be that different but the Ferrari can produce all that force really, really quickly.”

This was as much psychological as it was physiological with the surgery leaving scars in more ways than one. “The man fears nothing,” Dodoo said. “Just look at what he does with his face. But subconsciously his body still did not fully trust that limb. It is a result of trauma. As soon as you have someone use a knife to cut into your body and move things around your body will downgrade that area.

“Your body needs confidence and clarity to connect with that area, otherwise it is almost like you are having internal pins and needles. First you need to get your tissue back and your strength back and then regain your limb and coordination and explosivity.”

‘This boy is doing things I never expected’

That meant Curry coming down to Loughborough once a week where he was put through a gauntlet of exercises from resisted sprints to plyometrics, throwing medicine balls and eventually full-on sprints with changes of direction. By May, Dodoo had to shift the goalposts and brought Curry down for a whole week in Loughborough.

“His target was to be back for next season,” Dodoo said. “When we first spoke, being back for the end of the Premiership season was a ridiculous goal and going away with England was silly to even think about. He just wanted to be ready for pre-season with Sale. But by the end of May, I was like ‘this boy is doing things that I never expected him to do’.”

By now, Curry was physically ready to return for Sale’s final regular season match away to Saracens, but chose to have an extra week’s training before making his comeback as a replacement in the semi-final defeat at Bath, making a trademark hit on Josh Bayliss.

“He was like a hurricane for 35 minutes,” Sandhu said. “Bayliss had all the momentum on his side and Tom just melted him. That was the point at which I could breathe again because you could see he was back.”

Griffin, Sandhu and Dodoo have all played a key role in his comeback, but are clear that all the credit belongs to Curry alone. In Sale’s physio room at Carrington, there are various pictures of players with a description below. Manu Tuilagi, a frequent visitor, has “positivity” next to his name. Curry’s is “commitment”.

“He is committed to the ‘nth’ degree,” Sandhu said. “That commitment engulfs positivity and resilience. It is the umbrella that everything else sits under.”

Griffin has seen players return quicker from hip surgery but none with as severe and complicated an issue as was facing Curry. “When I saw him at three or four months I was seriously impressed how far along he was,” Griffin said. “To be playing international rugby six months on is really spectacularly good.”