We can often forget about athletes out with long-term injuries. So over a period of months, Henry Trinder has guided us through what it’s really like to work your way back onto the pitch. This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in December.

The centre knew instantly when it happened in March. It was as typical as any training session can be – there are
ups and downs through every season and some days you start fresher than others, but coming off a game for Gloucester, Henry Trinder felt alright.

Then it blew up. He ruptured his Achilles after jumping to catch a pass.

“As I landed and tried to push off, it just popped at the back of my leg,” Trinder tells us. “I knew what it was. And I hit the ground, grabbed my Achilles… or where it should be. It wasn’t and that’s when I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty much gone.’ So I then gave it my best attempt to try and hold it all in place, which obviously wasn’t doing anything and I got carried off the field and into the physio room.” So began an odyssey…

Trinder is no stranger to injuries. He has had plenty of niggles, the odd tweak and damage needing a few months to heal – he fractured a shoulder and a jaw in a rough season, he gives as one example. But he then had what he calls his first “big, big injury” back in 2015.

The one-club man describes it as “folding my knee in half” on his return from five months out – in a season opener he damaged his anterior cruciate ligament, lateral collateral ligament and hamstring.

His comeback from that injury, in 2016? He says he felt fine playing for half a season, but as the campaign end approached, he got caught in a ruck and damaged the same knee. More surgery followed, bringing another eight months of recovery and rehabilitation.

long-term injury

Diving over: Trinder scoring against Tigers in 2018 (Getty Images)

This is a part of rugby that rarely gets covered in any detail. Out of sight, out of mind, we hardly hear of what is happening behind the scenes with the badly wounded athletes. We only get snippets during the glorious comebacks, complications or retirements.

So with Trinder now targeting a return to Gloucester action again, in his testimonial year no less, who better to guide us through what really happens when someone suffers long-term injury. Over several months, he has talked us through the mental strain, the hours of work, the power of relationships and the drive to improve within allocated rehabilitation. In the course of discussing this, he opens up for the first time about dealing with epilepsy. He considers the power of new thinking and whether or not he can be guilty of overworking. This is life on the long road to recovery…

THE SHOCK OF IT ALL

The apocryphal tale is that some heard it pop. Regardless, pals hustled to help.

“In terms of the journey from there, I was scanned within an hour and a half of it happening,” Trinder explains of his Achilles injury. “By 7:30pm I knew what I’d done. Some of the hardest moments come when you hang around waiting for scans. You know you’ve hurt yourself, you know something is wrong and then you have to wait two days for a scan and another day for the results.

“That’s when everything goes round your head. Fortunately – or unfortunately – I knew what I had done. I didn’t know the full extent and eventually learnt that it was a full rupture, but at least that night we had an answer. As soon as you know, you start wrapping your head around it.”

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If there were loyalty cards for surgery, the centre’s would have a few holes in it. Trinder has briefly pondered if people can be born with bad luck, if you can pick it up. He has nagged himself wondering if he did too little physical preparation for the game or if he did too much.

While there was damage done through collision and uncontrollable situations on the pitch, he has also looked at the anomalous bits, the freak injuries, and wondered if he was predetermined to pick up pains. For example, when he first started out in rugby, he had a dead leg that began to calcify. After a few months rehabbing, he came back… only to pick up the same thing in the other leg five games later. “Which again is ridiculous, the odds of that!” he laughs.

long-term injury

Bed time: Getting worked on post-gym session (Daniel Gould)

But you can, he believes, go down the rabbit hole with worrying about any curse. If you genuinely thought you were preordained to get hurt again, you would never bother coming back. And he reckons if you go into action fretting about what might damage you, you become more likely to injure yourself.

Instead, Trinder likes focusing on the details. He likes studying up, he likes knowing what the plan is and if he’s comfortable with a certain physio’s style of strapping he will stick with that. He will ask questions. He wants facts.

He can be philosophical about his time out too. When discussing his misfortune with the second ACL injury in 2016, he adds: “The silver lining of long-term injury is that you can try to get everything else (in your body) as fit as possible.”

Instead of building up to “slogging out long runs” and then going for speed work, Gloucester took time to look at his running mechanics, getting the sprint technique down first and applying it to his longer runs. What they were doing was building for long-term health.

This sets Trinder off on a tangent. “With a long-term injury, it’s not when you’re fit and cleared to play that you should get thrown in. I see a lot of players, high-profile players who I won’t name, who are fit one week, get thrown in to play 80 minutes and then they get another long-term injury. To me, that’s ridiculous. What I’ve really benefited from is that because guys have played well and I’ve had an extended period of training to be fit, I think that is what makes the body a bit more robust.”

Many of us can justify in our heads why a star would want to rush back. We are the ones sitting at home forgetting about them, while they are the competitive beasts straining to play the game again.

But the time on the sidelines is one of conflicting emotions. Going through a few stages, Trinder explains the complex psychological steps a returning athlete can experience, starting with the surgery.

“The more serious the operation, the more worried you are about it. In a way you will never be the same again.

“If you can wrap your head around that and wrap your head around possibly doing it all over again, what’s probably made me strongest is that as much as I’ve got injured, quite badly, I’ve always gone out there and left it all behind for 80 minutes. It’s almost madness, going out there and doing it all again, but it’s quite hard to explain!”

Dealing with the emotional swings of a long-term injury can’t be underestimated as you power through rehab either. In a twist of fate, hooker James Hanson has been out with a near identical Achilles injury. While most of their time is spent in one-on-one sessions or with physios, these two-thirds of the Achilles Crew – a WhatsApp group including head of rehabilitation Jon Pamment – have had some interesting sessions with psychologist Dave Collins, who worked with the Gloucester squad last season.

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Stretched: Doing drills with John Pamment (Daniel Gould)

“He sat down with me and James and had a good chat about structuring and seeing the next step and visualising,” Trinder explains. “He was very big on visualising. That was quite an interesting thought, to visualise yourself doing exercises two weeks in advance. So when I’m sat on the sofa I’m visualising myself weight bearing. And then I’m visualising walking out of the boot. And then out of the boot I will visualise myself loading it with weight. So when you’re there, you’re actually ready for it. It’s a very powerful thing and a lot of athletes use visualisation, as a tool to succeed and to empower them.

long-term injury

Chatting to RW (Daniel Gould)

“The strangest one he said was about trying to be inside your tendon or your injury and actually visualise it healing and aligning. He used an analogy of a girl and you’re combing her knotted hair. So the more you comb it the better it is, the more straight it goes. And that’s how you want the (tendon) fibres organised.

“Those sorts of things, I hadn’t really used that before with previous injuries and I thought that it was, if anything, quite a good distraction or a way to shortcut 15 minutes a day. But it was quite an interesting angle that he went on that I thought was quite good.”

At the moment the focus is just on taking more steps forward. Returning players must be aware that things might not go totally to plan, that a niggle or knock could be around the corner. Trinder accepts this but won’t dwell on it – he’d like to play some rugby first. While a dead leg or a dislocated pinky would frustrate, anything but another major blow is manageable.

Candidly, Trinder adds: “If it was a serious one, again, if my Achilles was to go again, that would probably be the worst thing I can think of. But you just get over that when you get to it. It’s good to already think of (dealing with minor setbacks). But at the same time I’m very cautious not to think too negatively.”

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Frustrations are not like a game of Buckaroo, and even if they were, the Gloucester stalwart says, the worst has already happened. The mule has kicked, he’s had the horror injuries and come through. He has the best advice, expert help, good people around him. For him, “as long as it’s not a ton of bricks” he is happy to reset the game and have a mini fresh start after the little niggles.

As you soon discover too, Trinder will put in a shift with his physical work, doing anything he can to get back. But before we get to that you first learn something else about the 30-year-old.

LOOKING AFTER YOUR HEALTH

“I actually had a seizure in January this year and that was the first one I’ve had in ten years,” Trinder says of his life with epilepsy. It’s not a subject that is discussed publicly, partly because the centre has always had a handle on things. But on a few isolated occasions he has been caught off guard with it.

The topic comes up as he discusses the problems with him and Hanson carpooling to get to training at a time when neither could use one leg – the hooker had done his right one, meaning he couldn’t drive an automatic, while Trinder had done his left leg. But it turns out Trinder cannot get behind the steering wheel anyway, not being clear to drive within 12 months of a seizure.

How long has he dealt with epilepsy?

“I had my second seizure when I was 18. I was on my first pre-season with Gloucester, in Canada. It was the last day, we’d had a bit of a social the night before. We’d worked very, very hard the whole time and then I was ill as well. I’ve got a few triggers. Basically being ill, not sleeping and then (adding) alcohol tends to be the mixture – which are all great!

long-term injury

Big rivals: Evading Bath back in 2018 (Getty Images)

“My first one was when I was at home but again it was the exact same circumstances. I was ill all week, still training and we were flogged a bit. Then I went out and had a couple, then a couple more, then a couple more drinks.

“I’ve only had four seizures – touch wood. It can lay dormant and come out, but in the last ten years in terms of my rugby career I’ve been really good.”

So what was the trigger for the one in January? “It was my wife (Ryann’s) birthday, I’d been ill all week. We were up late on the Saturday, got up in the morning and that’s when it happened.

“I’d been so relaxed I probably missed my tablets as well, with the planning for the house party. But in terms of my last ten years, it’s been controlled and I hadn’t had one since I was 18 or 19. It has never impacted my rugby.”

Trinder admits that it is probably weird that the seizures don’t scare him, as he blacks out and doesn’t remember them. He is well aware of the potential dangers, though. And he insists that it has never held him back. He would not be surprised if there are other sports people with the condition who are not as open, but he acknowledges how lucky he is to be so mildly affected.

It has been the sessions away from the team, working to get back to full training with the squad post-injury, that have held his attentions these past months.

There have been moments where it has been testing. When your average person hears the word ‘massage’, it’s unlikely they feel the same pang of apprehension. When we visit Gloucester’s training base in pre-season, we witness the medical staff going through it with Trinder. Soft-tissue work; mobilisation around the Achilles; loosening him up after gym work; working on the attachment between the knee and the bottom of his foot; breaking down scar tissue. So much is wince-inducing but necessary.

Trinder tells another story of when he first did his ACL and LCL. During the healing process, he had to keep his leg straight for eight weeks, so everything was set “like concrete”. When he finally got on the physio bed to mix things up, they effectively bent the leg and tried to force his heel to his bum. “That was by far the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life,” he says.

But Trinder throws himself at it all.

long-term injury

High knees: Training one-on-one with Pamment at Gloucester (Daniel Gould)

He is diligent with his work at every point. Over the months of discussion, Trinder talks us through the different stages of recovery and rehabilitation.

With long-term injuries, in the early, post-op days you have to make peace with the fact you can’t get moving right away. Trinder says these days of getting the foot up and not sweating were vital for his Achilles injury, such is the risk of infection after an operation like his. It’s boring but you follow surgeon advice.

By his own admission, he is the type to research his injury, looking for articles and blog posts and the odd video about coming back from his injury. Going further, he adds: “I can get very carried away and I can get told off for seeing something on YouTube or Instagram and thinking, ‘Well, I’ll give that a try for a week and I’ll add that one to my rehab’.”

Clearly athletes can overdo it if they try too much too soon and have no dialogue with the experts around them. But Trinder feels he can read how his body reacts to certain exercises, where one last light set can fit in. He makes it clear he doesn’t mean stacking loads of weight plates on a bar and squatting heavy or doing calf raises well ahead of time. But he is willing to do more if he can. “It’s a mentality of whatever it takes to get me back to doing what we love.”

When we see the Gloucester set-up, Trinder works on running mechanics away from the main group. He moves on to jogging and low-intensity running, a “refreshing” change. At the very start of rehab there is some pain, but by the running stage he is healed and simply building back up. In the mornings Trinder wakes up, expecting soreness, but finds exercising pain-free is exhilarating.

According to head of rehab Pamment, Mondays and Thursdays are higher-stress days for the injured. Depending on specific injuries, those days have a lot of what he calls “nervous system fatigue” while Tuesdays and Fridays are more focused on “tissue fatigue or metabolic fatigue”. Wednesday is an admin day.

By mid-November, team training is back on the menu for a happy Trinder.

SUPPORT NETWORK

The Gloucester veteran is chuffed that medical science has come as far as it has. And he is appreciative of finding some support in other places too. “If I’d done my Achilles five years ago, I would probably have to call it a day. And I’ve talked to guys in the league like Kyle Eastmond and Anthony Watson who have done their Achilles in the last year or two. They are back fully flying and say they feel as good as ever.”

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Breaking out: Another run from Trinder against Leicester, 2016 (Getty Images)

In what you now know is a classic Trinderism, he didn’t hang about before contacting these guys either. Asked when he first picked up the phone to message either, the centres replies: “Oh, about an hour after I did it!”

That rugby fraternity can be a vital asset. He and ‘Chibba’ Hanson have helped each other through the pain of coming back – and will continue to do so – and they have spent a large amount of time having debriefs over coffee.

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While the team of Glaws conditioners and coaches have activities and group work set out through pre-season and into the main competition phases, it is inevitable that injured players form another group within a group. Trinder, who has represented England against the Barbarians and has Saxons honours, describes this little unit, who may have similar schedules or have downtime together, as a “band of brothers”. You will them on in their own fights back.

But Trinder is also keen to skip to the end of the book, to see what lies ahead.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Pamment says of working with returning players, rather than conditioning the fully fit. “It constantly makes you ask questions, questioning things you are doing. Not every programme fits every person.

“With Henry it is interesting because he has had so many injuries in the past. You definitely have the athlete at the centre of what you do and he has been through all the processes.

“It needs to be a two-way relationship, especially with any long-term injuries. He’s got so much experience, you’ve got to take on board what he says and him questioning you is a good thing.

“Of course, I don’t tell him how to play rugby! If I feel ‘this’ is the right way to do something, I’ll provide the evidence. If it doesn’t work, we try something else. There’s more than one way to do things.”

Bring a camera to training, though, and inevitably the assumption is it’s to do with what is dubbed the ‘Trindermonial’. With a ladies’ day and a match in his honour, you can sense the support for him. Wife Ryann has been a rock too.

THE FUTURE

There is something cathartic about talking through long-term injuries, finds Trinder. He explains: “Jonas Dodoo, the sprint coach who works with England, is a friend of mine from years ago, when I was at Hartpury. When I got injured I rang him and he said, ‘Keep a diary.’ I think this is the same as that.

“When you’ve had a bad couple of days or when you are able to look back and really recall those memories of when you were struggling or thought it was never going to get better, it actually then puts you into a good mindset.

long-term injury

Treatment table: Trinder relaxes at Gloucester’s training ground (Daniel Gould)

“It’s like, ‘actually that really is working’ or ‘look how far I’ve come’. Either having a conversation about it or writing it down shows you that, even though there are dark days or you wonder if it’s worth it, you can see how much hard work you are putting in. It does flip a switch to say, ‘Just keep pushing on’.”

The idea of giving back to his club is something Trinder thinks about. He recognises the support he has received over the years and realises that, despite your standing in your team, time keeps pushing on. That inherent, burning ambition means that he does not want to be left behind by his peers either.

“The closer I’m getting now the more excited I’m getting about wanting to play and wanting to contribute,” Trinder says.

“Now I’ve seen improvement and I’m getting to a point where I am more mobile, I’m running routes. You take that stuff for granted when you play rugby.

“Waking up and being pain-free or waking up and not being on crutches, being able to see progress which has taken six months of work – I can look back and see the foundations for what’s hopefully a return into the Gloucester team. I’m definitely in a spot now where I am very excited to get back out there.”

long-term injury

Looking ahead: Trinder poses for Rugby World (Daniel Gould)

Speed off the mark and the ability to beat defenders has always been a signature of Trinder’s game. Having spoken to medical experts and others who have had Achilles injuries, he is well aware that springiness is generally the last attribute to return. So he has been working on his understanding of the game, preparing to see things earlier, arrive at events and dig in or spot opportunities and distribute really well until he is back at his fast-twitch best.

He feels he can learn off Danny Cipriani about how to manipulate defenders and he has a renewed appreciation for keen analysis. More than anything though, he wants to contribute to Gloucester’s quick, running-based game plan.

Having sought out anecdotes from fellow pros, Trinder is happy to talk with others who reach out – though he does caution that the views of medics and conditioning experts is better for them.

As for Hanson, Trinder says he will be “very, very proud of him when he is playing as well”.

As. Well. You can sense the raw excitement about competing again.

This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in December.

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