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A new season always breeds new hope. For those who need their faith in the sport restoring after the rank cynicism of the Lions series and the sheer greed of administrators who should know better, then look no further than the example of Bristol back row Sam Jeffries.
In Pat Lam’s first season in charge in the Championship five years ago, Jeffries was a standout performer. He was the personification of the type of player Lam wanted to build the team around, having joined from Bristol University in 2016 and taken advantage of every opportunity that came his way. Lam even talked him up as a possible England player after scoring in the play-off victory against Doncaster.
That rich potential looked destined to remain unfulfilled, however. Jeffries played just 26 minutes of rugby in the Premiership as he developed a crippling patella tendinitis in both knees. No amount of rehab could relieve the pain, which, he says, was all consuming. In 2019 he retired from the sport, taking up a role as the club’s professional development manager.
Yet Jeffries never gave up. Even as he advised former team-mates about adapting to life after rugby, he held on to the hope that he would represent Bristol one more time in the Premiership. He fitted in running training before work, and gym work afterwards. Slowly, the pain disappeared. He returned to action in a handful of friendly matches and, after being put through a vigorous medical, was able to sign a new first-team contract this summer.
“I can’t imagine there are too many opportunities in professional sport to take a break in the game and come back in,” Jeffries says.
“I would have been so disappointed to have finished my rugby career at that point. I felt like I could have achieved so much more, so I always had that target in my head.
“I have a second chance to give back to the club because they have put so much faith in me. I have to pay that back on the field.
“Getting the contract was emotional. It was probably more emotional going through the retirement when I was 26 and I thought my rugby career was over. All of a sudden you are given a new opportunity to contribute in a different way. I am just desperate to repay that faith and start enjoying my rugby.”
This was no sentimental decision by Lam, who still believes in Jeffries’s potential just as much as he did five years ago. “I did not give him a job [as professional development manager] for sympathy either,” Lam says. “He is a quality rugby player, but he is also a quality person. There was no guarantee that he was going to come back to play rugby, but I did not want to lose him from the organisation.
“It also allowed him to do his training in his own time. The knee is better and he is good to go. It is an unbelievable comeback.”
As much as he longed to return, Jeffries threw himself into the new role, where he was doing everything from helping foreign players to settle to delivering home truths about the finite nature of a rugby career.
“I had the opportunity be quite frank with the players about life after rugby and I think that’s probably where my strength lies,” Jeffries says. “I was going from being a team-mate to someone who can help support them off the field and still being one of the lads.”
There was no medical breakthrough with Jeffries’s knees. Rather it was just rest that allowed him to recover. Fortunately, he also had a ready-made role model in Juan Smith, the South African flanker who also came out of retirement.
“He had very similar tendon issues, he had Achilles tendinitis,” Jeffries added. “He went back to his farm in South Africa but after a while he realised that he was good to go again and came back to win two European Cups with Toulon. That was the blueprint for what we felt I could achieve.
“All that time away paid dividends. I barely have any issues at all with my knee. It is so exciting to come back in and show what I can give to the club and what I can contribute.”