Jake Polledri: I remain positive despite retiring at 28 and losing my younger brother

Jake Polledri
Jake Polledri is attacking post-premature retirement with gusto in new coaching role as well as his cider business and the foundation his family have established in memory of his late brother, Sam - Jake Polledri

When the moving date was set for Jake Polledri and his young family to return to Gloucestershire this summer, they created a bucket list filled with final trips and activities to tick off before loading up the van and leaving Italy behind. One issue: as the weeks continue to pass and that deadline draws closer, the list remains concerningly long.

“We want to do Sardinia, Sicily and the Dolomites – I don’t think we’re going to get to any of them!” laughs Polledri, sitting on the balcony of his flat in Parma. While having “blue skies and sun 90 per cent of the time” will unquestionably be missed, he is excitedly returning to not only run the shop for his ‘Just Pressed’ cider brand in Longhope, but to begin the next stage of his rugby life; coaching at Cinderford RFC.

This is a good moment, after so many tough ones in the past few years which have left you wondering how after weathering such extraordinary adversity Polledri’s outlook on life can remain so sanguine. He is infectiously optimistic.

In March, Polledri announced his retirement from rugby at the age of 28. There are two ways to process that, and both are perfectly legitimate. The first is to lament that the career of one of the more explosive ball-carriers in the game, which held so much promise, has been brutally cut short, paused forever on 20 caps for Italy. All stemming from an attempted tackle against Scotland 3½ years ago which led to one of the more brutal leg injuries from rugby in recent memory.

And the second way is to marvel at how Polledri overcame catastrophic damage to his right leg – rupturing three cruciate ligaments, tearing his hamstring off the bone and tearing his calf, fracturing his leg and damaging the nerves to leave him suffering from ‘drop foot’ – followed by months of rehab sessions and gym work and electrical shots to stimulate his leg muscles, to not only play professional rugby again for Gloucester and Zebre, but also international rugby for the Azzurri. All, somehow, while coping with the desperate loss of his 24-year-old younger brother, Sam, to a heart attack.

“Coming back to play, I can’t really describe it. It felt like I had done the unachievable, because a lot of people wrote me off at that point,” Polledri tells Telegraph Sport. The ‘people’ in question include a straight-talking Italian nerve surgeon who, somewhat unwittingly, volunteered: “You’re never going to be back fully to where you were.” The surgeon’s remarks at least seemed to be well-intentioned. Comments from fans Polledri had never met on social media, “Jake will never be the same again”, were the equivalent of motivational lighter fluid.

“It’s difficult to read at the time because you’re fighting against it, fighting against the world, essentially. To be able to get on the pitch after all of that…”

This feels like a good time to revisit Polledri’s history of surgeries during his lamentably brief career; one ankle operation, two knee procedures, a nose reconstruction and three shoulder surgeries. One of those shoulder operations led to an infection – “from a keyhole surgery, which is a tiny per cent chance, but that was me after everything else...” – which meant taking a drip into his heart every couple of weeks at a hospital in Cheltenham while Polledri’s son, Oakley, was only a couple of months old. “Dark memories,” as he puts it.

Then, he rather movingly says this. “At least I’m still here. Bless my brother. That’s why I am so positive. It is not the end of the world, there are plenty of people out there with worse conditions. Still alive and kicking, which is the main thing. Psychology wise, yes, it’s been awful, s---, dark times especially losing my brother. Yet retirement is not the end of the world. There are plenty of things to look forward to. I still love rugby and still have a lot to give. [Coaching] keeps my toe in the water, as such, after it was so harshly dragged out.”

Sam Polledri died after suffering a cardiac arrest while on a night out in Bristol’s Millennium Square. There was no accessible defibrillator nearby to save his life. Eager to try and make something good happen out of a colossally heartbreaking situation, the Polledri family launched The Sam Polledri Foundation and have since installed 17 publicly-accessible defibrillators – the first went in Millennium Square – with funding in place for 15 more. There are charity dinners and fundraising events planned to install as many as possible, all driven by Polledri’s mother, Louise. Two lives have already been saved thanks to the defibrillators.

“It is never going to sit right, but that makes it better, that we’re doing some good from a s--- situation. And it keeps mum busy, which probably helps her. Being the guardians for the defibs – when they go off, mum checks on them – they all need to be ready to be used at all times,” Polledri explains.

“There isn’t a cap on it, we’ll just keep doing it. As many as possible. The best [in terms of supply] are the Scandinavian countries, but England itself is terrible for publicly accessible defibs.”

Polledri effectively made two comebacks in the past two years, playing despite his drop foot – when there is damage to the nerve which lifts your foot – and driven by two motivating factors. Twenty-two months passed between his leg injury and his return playing six games in the 2022-23 season for Gloucester. Incredibly, he also came off the bench for Italy to play against England. Sam’s death was his initial inspiration, focused on getting back on to the field to honour his brother. And just for a second as the family gathered to watch Polledri play again, it was a reminder of the times they used to enjoy together.

“That was amazing. To play at Twickenham with Italy when all the family came… especially for mum and dad. It wasn’t normality, because we didn’t have Sam. It was a sense of what the times were like before with the family travelling around to watch me play. It was 80 minutes where they could focus on something else other than losing their son. That helped massively.”

Polledri is the son of Peter Polledri, who played an astonishing 466 times for Bristol as a back-row. “Over the moon” is how the younger Polledri describes his father’s reaction to Polledri’s initial comeback. And his subsequent retirement? “Still goes, ‘Are you sure?’ Yes dad, I know my body, I know when it’s not right. It’s hard for old school players but there were no physios, no treatment then, it was crack on. The state of his hands and fingers, his body in general, is mental. It’s a hard pill to swallow because Sam played a little bit before he passed away, my other brother Lewis played a little bit but never took it seriously. It was dad’s excuse to travel to watch me play, so he’s obviously gutted, but also super proud of where I got to.”

So proud in fact that during the 2019 Rugby World Cup – when Polledri was excellent for Italy, beating more defenders (27) than any other forward – his father landed back in the UK after Italy’s first two games, instantly regretted his decision, and jumped straight back on a plane to Japan on his own to see him face South Africa.

When Polledri made his second comeback from shoulder surgery with Zebre there was another driving force; wanting to get back on the field so his son, Oakley, could see his father play before he retired.

Not forgetting his awe at his partner, Becca, for keeping the wheels turning after his leg operation when Polledri couldn’t bear any weight for six weeks, and latterly agreeing to uproot their lives to move to Italy with a two-month-old at a time when Polledri was in a sling and couldn’t drive, isolated from family in a foreign country.

A busy summer awaits as the UK weather (surely) improves and demand for Polledri’s award-winning cider rises, continuing to roll out Just Pressed into more shops as an alternative to the bigger brands. Each sale of their “Fratello” cider – which translates as “Brother” – supports The Sam Polledri Foundation.

He will also continue cheering on Italy with as much passion as you would expect and was in Cardiff for the big win over Wales, relishing the change in discourse about this Azzurri side with the emergence of so many exciting young talents under Gonzalo Quesada.

“I was laughing the other day seeing Georgia call out Wales. I just sit there and think: ‘How does that taste, we had that for 10 years.’ Italy used to get it all the time. I just sit back and think: ‘Have that.’ It’s not nice, and like rubbing salt in the wound. Wales in general, not just the national team, are not in a good spot. Everyone in Cardiff was great, saying Italy were the better team and deserved to win, very forthcoming. But now, the shoe is on the other foot. It’s not nice to be constantly called out for being in the Six Nations.”

It feels cruel for Polledri to miss out on Italy finally turning the corner, his career reduced really to a brief spell of 3½ years when he was healthy and ruining tackle attempts.

And yet he speaks with such gratitude and optimism about what’s next with his business and at Cinderford, of retirement meaning that he was able to see Oakley take his first steps at a time when he would have otherwise been at training, that ultimately you reach a point where you stop wondering how Polledri can be so positive in spite of having faced so much trauma in recent years. Instead, you just marvel at him.