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The Long Road Back: How Jonathan Davies fought back from the worst injury of his career; The Wales star sat down with WalesOnline to chronicle a difficult year.

Byline: Matthew Southcombe

Jonathan Davies is sat on a physio bed in the bowels of the Principality Stadium slowly peeling off his strapping -- he doesn't know it yet, but his season is over.

His team-mates come over to check on him, make sure he's got what he needs and offer words of support.

It's a difficult situation because nobody knows quite how serious the injury is at this stage but Davies has his suspicions.

Minutes earlier, with the clock red and Wales eight points behind Australia, Davies had been tackled by Marika Koroibete.

"I heard a few pops and crunches," he recalls.

Medics came rushing to Davies' aid, asking what the problem was.

"Foot and knee," came the response.

After being carted off the field on 'the meat wagon', taking handshakes from several Australian players on the way, the 30-year-old tried to walk the 15 yards from the end of the tunnel to the dressing room.

He couldn't put any weight on it - another red flag.

"They carried me to the changing room, I sat on the physio bed taking off my strapping, showered and then got back to the hotel to see the family."

In the days that followed, scans would reveal that Davies had suffered a Lisfranc fracture -- displacement of the metatarsals in his left foot -- and surgery would be required. He'd be having a plate inserted to help the body knit back together.

The following Monday, he received instructions from Wales boss Warren Gatland to effectively write the season off and focus on getting back in shape for the start of the 2018/19 season.

That was a blow. But in many ways it also helped.

The timing meant Davies would aim to be fit for the end of the season, giving him a summer off before hitting the reset button and getting a full pre-season under his belt.

But before he could get anywhere near that point, he had a lot of work to do.

Moving home, a mobility scooter and lots of ice

After surgery, the main priority was wound management, ensuring that the scar remained clean to keep any potential infection at bay.

Then there were two weeks in plaster, which brought its own challenges.

Being in a cast meant he wasn't using his calf muscle, which leads to muscle wastage in his left leg, so he'd hook himself up to a compex machine, a device that uses electric energy to stimulate muscles.

During this period immediately after the operation, Davies moved back in with his parents -- who run a local pub -- in Laugharne and it's a move he believes gave him a headstart on his rehab.

After surgery, the most basic of everyday tasks are impossible and he is eternally grateful for the excellent support system around him.

"My mum helps run the pub but -- she'll hate me for saying this -- she doesn't really work," he smiles.

"We have this joke in the family that mum could open up a rehab clinic because she always helps me and my brother back from injuries.

"The setup she'd have there was amazing. I went home for two or three weeks because my mum could be there most of the day.

"I'd come down in the morning and the rehab machine was set up with ice in it ready to go.

"She's an absolute saint. All I had to do was make sure I was comfortable and icing my leg. She took care of everything else.

"Then when I came back to Cardiff, my girlfriend made sure everything was good. That support system helps and my brother will vouch for that."

The best paid rugby players in the world

Next it was into a boot for five to six weeks. It was also around this time that Davies took advantage of access to a mobility scooter (thanks to his uncle).

Though it may have made him the punchline of a few jokes, the scooter served a purpose.

"It helped massively," he insists.

"When I left home in west Wales to come back to Cardiff, I didn't want to be just hopping around my house on crutches the whole time.

"It was a useful way of just getting around.

"It was a lot of fun actually, I got some funny looks, especially going around the Christmas markets in Cardiff.

"People saw the funny side of it but it wasn't just for comedy value!"

The next priority was tackling the swelling, using Game Ready, a device that compresses and cools an area of the body.

"Getting the swelling down is key, so you're hooking up to the Game Ready," Davies explains.

"I dread to think how much money I've spent on bags of ice in the last year.

"The Co-op must have wondered what the hell was going on when some guy was wandering in during December buying bags and bags of ice.

"But that's the most important thing, getting your foot down as quickly as possible.

"Once you get into a boot, you're still off your feet and doing very little. It's a waiting game."

That was until the conditioning staff got their hands on him.

Starting from scratch

The 72-cap international is on a National Dual Contract, so he had the benefit of access to both Scarlets and Welsh Rugby Union staff, who collaborated to form a detailed rehabilitation plan.

Davies' foot was still in a boot but the staff were able to adapt sessions to work around that and ensure he was still able to do some form of conditioning to stay as close to peak condition as possible.

"The conditioning staff had me working my hamstring and my quad on my left leg," he explains.

"The work the staff put into me was unbelievable and I can't speak highly enough of the support I had.

"We could do seated passing then into a rower. I'd hook my good leg into the machine, put my bad one on a skateboard and just row.

"Seated SkiErg (a SkiErg is a machine that helps imitate skiing movements), arms-only assault bike -- that's horrible.

"But it can get quite monotonous because there are only so many ways you can manipulate the session.

"After a few weeks in the boot, there were a couple of times when I just came out of it to simply stand on my foot. It's strange because it felt really alien to just stand on it again, it felt horrible."

Wales v Australia

Slowly, the rehab dragged along to the point where Davies was using a resistance band to strengthen muscles around his foot.

Things even went as far as focusing rehabilitation on his big toe and picking objects up with his feet to strengthen muscles along the base of his foot.

Such fine movements may seem inconsequential to many but it was all part of the process and the boxes had to be ticked before moving on to the next stage.

"At this point, you still have the compex on and you're starting your foot movements with the band," he says.

"Then you start picking stuff up with your toes. I used to roll some tape up into a sausage and practice getting my grip back.

"The underneath of your foot is a big part of your running mechanism. Getting the strength back in that is key and it goes so quickly.

"It's about getting your toe movements, getting rid of the stiffness in your big toe -- I've never had so much treatment on my toes before.

"You're basically sat on a bed holding a band and you're moving your foot. Sometimes I just had to wrap it around my big toe and concentrate on being able to move my big toe - and that would be a rehab session. You'd be surprised at how hard it is to move your big toe and keep everything else still."

That early stage, Davies explains, is about getting a base, a launchpad for that day he would come out of the boot.

"You might not feel like you're making many gains but you know that base will help you when the surgeon is happy for you to start walking again," he says.

"It is difficult and it does get you down. It's a challenge mentally. There were times when I'd do something for a week and you think you're good to go but then you're told you've got to do another three weeks of it."

After 12 weeks, Davies came out of the boot and then had to address a new problem. He almost had to teach himself how to walk correctly.

"When you start coming out of the boot it's all about trying to sort your gait out. You're constantly thinking 'heel, toe' when you're walking," he says.

"It becomes alien because when you walk with a boot you almost hike your hip up and you put yourself in a bad position."

Around 16 weeks after the operation he was doing balance work, lifting weights again and running on a machine called the AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill that is commonly used in rehabilitation because it lightens the load on an injured limb, allowing an athlete to make a gradual return to full weight-bearing running.

This was progress, but there was still an almighty amount of extra work being done outside of office hours.

"The AlterG is amazing," Davies says.

"But through all this time you're always strengthening your calf and doing rehab with the compex on. I'd go home at night and do more band work, I'd be sitting down watching TV with a band and then I'd roll my foot on a golf ball.

"It's constantly trying to improve and identify the little windows of opportunity for you to get more volume in."

The most difficult part

The final hurdle before returning to the field was getting his power back. In the modern game, that power is vitally important and being able to push massive amounts of force through his foot in the blink of an eye without even thinking about it was the end game.

But Davies admits this was the toughest part of his rehab. Initially, he struggled to simply hop on one foot.

"The last thing then is getting that power back, the single leg stuff, which is where I probably struggled the most," Davies says.

"I'd have to hop on one leg and it was about getting the confidence back. You have to constantly work at that and you can't move forward until you get there. It took me a while to be able to bounce on one foot.

"By the end I think I was a pro at hop scotch. Around all that you're doing your strength exercises and getting that volume of running before you train."

Dark, early mornings

Written down like this, the rehabilitation process might seem straightforward. But there were dark moments.

Being able to train with a cluster of injured players helped stave of the psychological toll that such a lengthy process might take on an athlete.

The injured group at the Scarlets had to work around the team's schedule, which often meant being in the facility before the sun rose to make use of equipment before the squad arrived.

"It was better to have someone else who was injured to do a session with. Jake Ball was injured at the time and there were a few other boys in the injured club at the Scarlets," Davies recalls.

"It makes it easier because you lean on each other when you go into weights and training.

"There were some dark, early starts, some days I might not have been up for it, other days other boys weren't up for it, but it's all about getting each other through."

Another weapon to fight back against the boredom was holidays.

He was under no pressure to get back having written off the season, so Davies was afforded time off to reset and recharge ahead of another block of recovery.

Jonathan Davies holiday post

It was the first summer since 2009 that he hadn't been involved in a summer tour and that was something to take advantage of.

"They were relaxed with me taking a few holidays here and there," he grins.

"I had a lot of stick. The boys said I was hosting a Wish You Were Here programme at one point because I was able to enjoy myself.

"At the end of the day, when I went in to rehab, I was working extremely hard. The opportunity to rest up before going back in to push yourself was a little carrot for me to keep my standards up during my injury."

Something else the two-time British and Irish Lion did to fill his time was a bit of media work.

He was a pundit on BT's coverage of the Scarlets' European Champions Cup run and he did a cracking job. However, there was a problem: most athletes are terrible spectators -- Davies was worse.

"It was really difficult. I hated it," he admits.

"I did a couple of the big European games and you want to be involved in them. I went on holiday the day of the last Six Nations game. I made sure I was in the air when it was on."

Floating screws

It might seem like things had largely gone to plan but there was one minor scare.

Throughout the process, Davies was regularly having check-ups and scans to make sure everything was healing as it should have been.

And one scan threw him a curveball.

A metal plate inserted into his foot was initially vital to hold things in place but it's now essentially redundant, having fulfilled its duty and his body healed.

And it's a good job that plate and screws are no longer required.

"I remember I came back for a follow up x-ray and the surgeon said I snapped two screws in my foot," he remembers.

"I basically s*** myself. When a surgeon says you've snapped two screws, you think the worst.

"Two of the screws are just floating. My foot can get stiff and I sometimes walk like an old man after training or whatever but when I get moving, I'm fine.

"It doesn't bother me and they could whip them out if they needed to because it's done the job it was supposed to do. They described it to me as scaffolding."

Light at the end of the tunnel

As the year wore on, Davies stayed the course and hit his target of being fit for the end of the year.

He had to overcome the mental barrier of convincing himself that the foot would stand up to the rigours of professional rugby -- and that wasn't a given in his mind -- but he was able to play a part behind the scenes as the Scarlets' season reached a climax.

"I'd done contact in training, I got my foot in a position where I'd been tackled and it had dragged along the floor and I'd worry straight away and then realise actually it was fine," he recalls.

"Then it happens again and you don't think about it. Or you could be in a jackal or you step off the foot and you think 'Ahh, didn't feel anything'.

"You get up in the middle of the session and think 'It's still there, thank god!'

"I got myself near enough fit by the end of the season, I ran against the team with the boys who weren't involved in the matchday 23.

"Then I was confident going away that I could have a six-week break where I was able to have an off-season and prepare myself."

The comeback

Davies was back in great shape come the start of this new season but there would be one final hiccup.

A hamstring niggle saw his season false start, but two tries against the Southern Kings at the end of September reminded us all what we'd missed and it was no surprise to see him straight back into the Wales fold.

Davies ran in a try in the 21-10 victory against Scotland and there might have been a bit of extra punch to his celebration. It meant a lot.

"I was reasonably pleased with scoring a try, getting a win," he smiles.

"You don't know whether you can come back or not, the surgeon always says that there is no guarantee the operation will work.

"You trust them to do the best job they can but you do think that it might hinder you.

"I've had a few comebacks but I think this rehab has been the hardest one - it was worst injury I'd had.

"So there was a moment after the game with my parents when I realised it was nice to be back and it was all worth it -- everything I've been through."

Unfortunately, he's had his fair share of knocks -- he's injured the ACL in both his knees -- so he's well versed in rehabilitation.

And when pondering whether or not the ordeal has taught him anything, Davies thinks long and hard.

"John Barclay used to say 'Your body is your business so you have to take care of it'," he says.

"I go home most nights and have a stretch on the floor, just to make sure you're in a decent spot to go training the next day.

"Are you being the best version of yourself if you're not doing everything you can in your preparation?

"It does take a lot to do that but the more you get injured, the more you understand that. It's a tough lesson to learn. It is a difficult road. But it does help you appreciate things more in the long term.

"It was a long old path back."


Credit: Richard Swingler

'It's a difficult road - but it helps you appreciate things more in the long term' Jonathan Davies heard things 'crunch' when he was tackled during a Wales game against Australia and has been fighting back to fitness ever since

Credit: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Jonathan Davies is stretchered off last November during Wales' game against Australia

Credit: @jonfoxdavies on Instagram

Davies posted this snap on Instagram after moving back in with his parents

Credit: @jonfoxdavies on Instagram

Davies used a mobility scooter to get around when he moved back to Cardiff - it led to some funny looks as he zipped around the city's Christmas market

Credit: Richard Swingler

Jonathan Davies speaks to WalesOnline

Credit: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Jonathan Davies worked for BT Sport on some of the Scarlets' big European games but found it tough to be so close to the action - here he interviews his brother, James, after the Scarlets' Champions Cup quarter final

Credit: Richard Swingler

Jonathan Davies plays for Wales against Australia on Saturday, having been badly injured the last time the teams met

Credit: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency

Jonathan Davies celebrates a try on his Wales comeback
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Wales Online (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 9, 2018
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