Professional rugby players are used to going through the wringer but even so, it takes a remarkable level of mental fortitude to process and push past what Jake Polledri has been through over the past two years.
The Gloucester and Italy back-row is now healthy again, ripping through pre-season drills at Kingsholm this week in front of Telegraph Sport having recently signed a new contract, which all seems astonishing given the recent state of Polledri's right leg.
“I think it’s easier to sum up what wasn’t broken,” Polledri laughs. Playing for Italy against Scotland back in November 2020 in Florence, away from any contact Polledri slipped and the results were catastrophic – his anterior, posterior and lateral collateral ligaments all ruptured, a torn calf, torn hamstring off the bone, fractured leg and nerve damage.
The last detail is the most important. Following a graft taken from his left hamstring – the equivalent of a grade three tear, the worst kind – Polledri was initially bed-bound for a month but left waiting for a year to see if the nerves in his right knee would recover. There were genuine concerns that the powerful back-row’s career would be over in his mid-20s.
“It’s a tough one to take. Especially a slip, that something so trivial could cost such a long time out of rugby,” Polledri reflects. “With all the expertise and everything we have in the world at the moment, the fact you are sitting and waiting for the nerve to recover is the painful bit. Ever since the news came out of the electromyography (which measures muscle response or electrical activity in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle) that [the knee] was going to recover, that the nerve was regenerating, it was only ever positive.”
Polledri’s recovery continued to progress well throughout last season, but the whole family were rocked in February this year when his brother, Sam, died at the age of 24 from a suspected heart attack. Typically, Polledri has tried to approach the tragedy as positively as possible. Last week a defibrillator was installed by the family in Millennium Square in Bristol where Sam passed away, with Polledri now campaigning for more to be installed publicly across the country.
“Every second counts. Sam had a defib within six minutes – they called an ambulance, but it was in town and they were quite busy. If you get someone a defib within three-five minutes their chances of survival are between 50-70 per cent. Every second counts. There were five defibs where Sam passed away, and none of them available to the public, so that’s infuriating and frustrating. The system is not great.”
The pain of losing his brother combined with months of rehabilitation must have been immense. Polledri, unbowed, has battled on.
“Sam would have wanted me to get back to rugby. He didn’t have the chance to see me play again, which is brutal,” Polledri adds. “I don’t think sitting around and moping is going to do anyone any good. There are times for that, but [I want to] just get back to where I was. There is no point dragging anyone down with you – again there is time for that and you’re allowed to be upset, but the positivity around me playing again has overwhelmed everything else.”
By coincidence Polledri launched a craft cider business, Just Pressed Cider, with his partner, Becca, two weeks before he was struck down with injury. Already loved by Gloucester fans and found in several pubs and bars across Gloucester and Cheltenham, canning the product and the expansion of the business is keeping Polledri busy away from the club.
The couple are now also engaged, having met when Polledri was working at one of his dad’s Subway branches in Bristol. “I want an Italian wedding and she wants an English one, so we’re at loggerheads!” Polledri admits.
While his mind was already on interests outside rugby before the injury, being sidelined for so long only reinforced the importance of planning for life and a career after retirement.
“For a lot of people, 30 seconds or a slip can cost you a career. It does really highlight that and the importance of other stuff besides throwing a ball around, really.”
It will be a relief to be playing again
Although for now, throwing a ball around and ripping into contact is exactly what Polledri cannot wait to do. With his knee splint removed and after an enjoyable (apparently) pre-season the 26-year-old is champing at the bit to get back playing and to change the narrative around him.
“I sat in the stands watching those fitness sessions for almost a year and a half. To be able to actually join in and be part of it, get into the gritty with the boys, it’s amazing to get back,” Polledri explains.
“To be honest it’ll be a relief to be playing again. All it is now is ‘how is your knee? When will you be playing again?’ if I’m talking to my grandparents or my mum or whoever, whereas I want it to be ‘so good to see you back’ – a change in tone. People only care, and I’m not blaming them or what they say, but I just want to be back.”
For Gloucester and also Italy with the Rugby World Cup on the horizon, Polledri’s return after an immensely difficult spell will be welcomed with open arms.