If Ben Foden is fit in time for the Rugby World Cup, and selected, it won’t so much be a miracle as the blessed result of some tortuous rehabilitation for a damaged anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
In announcing his World Cup training squad, England head coach Stuart Lancaster threw Foden a lifeline, singling the Northampton Saints full-back out as someone who was still in his thoughts, despite missing the second half of the season and not being named in the coach’s 50-man group. It’s already a pretty busy squad that is fit and raring to go, but pushed on by hard work abroad and the faith of England’s coaches, Foden is targeting England’s first warm-up game against France on 15 August.
“The England lads will have four weeks of conditioning and not rugby or tackling,” Foden tells Rugby World of England’s upcoming training camps. “Obviously for me it’s a race against time (to get there). I’d spoken to Andy Farrell and to join in with the guys I have to be at the right level. I’ve just done my first week of running, coming into my second week now, and to get up to the live stuff with the others I need to be accelerating and decelerating at 100%. But the knee feels good.”
Foden will have the disappointment of continuing to train in isolation a lot of the time, as he has done for the last few months, as many Saints team-mates take in a holiday following their Aviva Premiership semi-final defeat to Saracens. But he has been through worst on his quest to regain fitness. He spent a fortnight in Philadelphia with Bill Knowles, the man who helped rehabilitate Tiger Woods, Jonny Wilkinson and many downhill skiers. It could be rough at times.
“Bill got physios to get right into the muscle tissue. It wasn’t pleasant, even if it was useful. They would have metal tools digging into you.
“What Bill does is let you know where your body is at. So it’s not just about your knee, but your hips and your lower back. I’d hurt my ACL but I’d also previously hurt the PCL in my right knee. Your body has different ways of breaking down. So a lot was about letting you know how to run again.
“This was about getting the full range of movement of your knee over your foot, making sure your running angles are good. Our physio came out for the second week and we’d send videos back so we could see everything.”
Foden admits that this ordeal has forced him to re-evaluate the way he treats his body. He is coming up for 30 and if he is to play until he is 35 he must stop taking the little efforts for granted. The prodding, pain and rehabilitation surely makes sure of that. Look at his current regime.
He explains that to get where he needs to be he is doing a lot of basic mechanics work. A lot of lunging, that will hopefully build up into squats. He is doing deadlifts with a hexagonal bar. He is doing a lot of pool work that “feels like I am drowning a lot of the time”, as he splashes around for a conditioning session with modified flippers on his feet. He is doing some bike work with intense sessions so that “my lungs are still there and I’m not plodding when I do get back out there”. He is working his way into a few more pitch-based running sessions, with the ultimate goal of getting back to his explosive best; the level of exciting play that saw him come into consideration in January before injury knocked him out of Six Nations contention.
Of course, while all of this toil sounds tough and at times frustrating, it is the faith of England’s elite coaches that keeps him going.
“When I got the phone call from the medics to tell me I’d done my ACL, my heart broke in my chest a little. I was pretty down in the dumps. But Lanny (Lancaster) called me and gave me something to aim for – 15 August and that first warm-up, aimed at the World Cup. I’ve still got that voicemail saved on my phone.”
Listening back to that and talking positively with Farrell are happy distractions from the arduous and sometimes painful rehab. But if he makes his second World Cup it will all be worth it.
Ben Foden is an Emirates ambassador for Rugby, encouraging young fans to find the flag hidden in Birmingham today to win the chance to lead a team out at Rugby World Cup 2015. Visit Emirates Facebook, Twitter of Instagram to follow the #EmiratesFlag