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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 11 July, 2020
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'I can't wait to pull on the Leinster jersey. It feels good to be a rugby player again'

Today marks exactly one year since Tom Daly last made a senior appearance for Leinster. He makes his long-awaited comeback in this afternoon’s Pro14 inter-pro in Galway.

IT HAD BEEN a good pre-season. Tom Daly had worked hard, worked tirelessly, to get himself in the best shape possible. He knew what was required, fully aware that potential has a shelf life. It wasn’t so much last-chance-saloon, but having watched team-mates — and housemates — seize their chance, he was tired of waiting for his. Now was his time.

Tom Daly Daly's progress has been stunted by a series of injury setbacks. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

And then, inexplicably, another setback. Another injury. Another extended period on the sideline, of watching, of waiting, of wondering. Frustration and anger on that maddening and slippery descent back to square one. Real life snakes and ladders.

It was in Perpignan last August where Daly, the Leinster centre, suffered the cruellest of blows at the start of a season which promised so much, but has again delivered very little.

Eager to make his mark, and stake a claim, the 24-year-old was quickly in to clear out a ruck during the first half of the pre-season fixture in France, only to come out of the innocuous breakdown involvement with anterior cruciate ligament damage to his knee.

Gut-wrenching.

“I thought it was a dead leg at the time,” he explains to The42.

If only.

Daly continues, through gritted teeth: “A Perpignan player fell on my back but his knee just shunted into the back of my knee. I played the rest of the game because it wasn’t too bad, or didn’t feel bad, and the physios didn’t think it was anything too serious.

“I got a scan on the Sunday night for precautionary reasons and I actually had medicals on the Monday morning and I was told I wasn’t going to train that afternoon but I’d play Friday night in the second pre-season game against Gloucester.”

And then the results of the scan came back.

“It was a bit of a shock and obviously tough to take…yeah, it was a bit of a shock alright.”

The mental fatigue and strain is so often harder to bear than the physical damage.

The news wasn’t announced by Leinster until the following week, at which stage Daly was still trying to process what had happened and how he was going to mentally get through another nine months of painstaking, monotonous rehabilitation. Of isolation and detachment.

This was meant to be his season, and now he would spend all of it an arm’s length away from affairs on the pitch, his involvement restricted to sitting in on team meetings, taking notes on calls and patterns in the hope he would need them at some stage. A superficial interest without the substance of matches, but that’s all Daly had to work with.

“I would have been targeting this season as a good chance to break into the squad,” he laments.

“I had a couple of good games last year, got a few chances and felt I was doing okay. I really did target this season and I had a good pre-season but that obviously happened.

Tom Daly scores a try Daly scored a try on his senior debut against Zebre. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

“It’s very tough, it’s kind of unbelievable really…just tough to process, to get your head around.”

Bad luck is one thing, but injuries have been a common thread throughout Daly’s short career and have seriously hindered his chances of fulfilling an undoubted potential which had been earmarked from an early age, and came to the fore during his time with Ireland U20s.

He was one of the standout performers during the 2013 U20 Six Nations in a team containing the likes of Luke McGrath, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack O’Donoghue and Rory Scannell. And then the Trinity College man broke his hand during the World Cup that summer, leaving him playing catch up with his peers.

A strong and powerful inside centre, Daly’s obvious strength is his carrying ability in midfield but soft hands, speed and reliable place-kicking make him more than a one-dimensional player.

He has been always rated highly at Leinster and after three years in the province’s academy, the Carlow native was awarded a senior contract by Leo Cullen at the start of last season.

Daly had to bide his time, a combination of injuries and the obvious strength in Leinster’s midfield stocks, meaning opportunities were initially limited but after finding form and fitness, made his debut in an away win over Zebre in November 2016, marking the occasion with a try in front of his proud parents.

And eight more appearances followed that season, many of them off the bench, but Daly had made a good impression on Cullen and Stuart Lancaster and was beginning to reap the rewards of his hard work. He was heading in the right direction.

That’s what makes all of this — the injury, the frustration, the loneliness of working in the gym on your own for six months — an even harder pill to swallow. And then Leinster’s midfield resources were stretched perilously low in the opening weeks of the season with injuries to Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, leaving Daly to wonder what might have been.

The door was open for him, but he had to watch from afar as others — namely Rory O’Loughlin, Noel Reid, Conor O’Brien and Gavin Mullin — took advantage.

“It’s difficult seeing them do so well and when the team is doing so well you want to be involved,” he admits.

“Tough to watch at times when you’re sitting on the line every week with different people, but you’re constantly there and never involved. After a couple of weeks, I nearly became a supporter of the team and just became happy for the lads every time they played well.

Leinster v Newport Gwent Dragons - Guinness PRO12 Round 10 It has been a long and painful journey back but today marks the end of his comeback. Source: Stephen McCarthy

“But you just have to focus on what you can focus on and believe you’ll be back. Jordi Murphy and Ed Byrne, guys who have done it before, were straight on the phone to me that night [of the injury] chatting away, keeping me positive. And all the coaches were really supportive and I’m lucky to live with three of the lads [Adam Byrne, Peter Dooley and Josh van der Flier] as well and they’ve been a great help throughout the rehab and just been very positive to be around.

“They can tell when you need a bit of space because you’re angry over rehab or whatever. Or they can cheer you up when you need it.”

A range of emotions, some days harder than others, but Daly understood the need to be positive, to set short-term goals and celebrate incremental gains, no matter how small they were.

Working closely with the Leinster medical team, he slowly built the strength up in his knee and the surrounding muscles, allowing him to firstly squat, then jump and, eventually, return to running again.

It was a long and painful process but Daly’s positive attitude and unwavering commitment to his programme meant he has returned ahead of schedule, fitter than ever before.

“I broke it up into four-week stages,” he says. “Getting back to full running again was a really big step and I actually didn’t do that until January but at least then you’re back out on the pitch with the lads. You’re not training with them but you at least feel more part of it.

“I knew there were opportunities for me at the start of the year but if you play that over in your mind, it’s going to hold you back. For me, it was just about parking everything straight away and kicking into the rehab.

“Thankfully, it has been very smooth from the start, I’ve had no real setbacks, and things have gone pretty well. I can’t thank the players and staff at Leinster enough for the last nine months, they’ve been so supportive.

“It’s part and parcel of the game but there’s no hiding the fact it’s a tough time. It’s frustrating watching lads you were on a par with kick on but you just have to believe you’ll get back there. You have to believe your time will come and just work hard towards that.”

Originally told he wouldn’t play again this season, Daly’s diligence and work-ethic ensured he made encouraging progress post-Christmas and in the last few weeks has been able to step up his recovery by returning to full contact training with Leinster.

“It was a bit of a shock to the system,” he smiles.

Ulster Bank League Awards launch Daly was speaking a the launch of the Ulster Bank League awards. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

As he continued to hit the necessary markers in his comeback, Daly made his long-awaited return to competitive action with a 40-minute appearance for Lansdowne in the Ulster Bank League a fortnight ago.

Nerves, he admits, were inevitable, particularly after an extended period out of the game but once the initial doubts were erased, the Ireland sevens international was straight back into it, blowing off the cobwebs of a nine-month layoff.

“It has been a long and frustrating year so to just feel like a rugby player again is brilliant. I was then was involved with the Leinster ‘A’ team for the great win in the B&I Cup last weekend so it has been a good few weeks.

“I’ve been working pretty hard on my skills with Noel McNamara for the time I was out, doing a lot of handling, passing and decision-making that I might not have got the chance to do if I was fully fit and playing, so hopefully I’m coming back in better shape than I left.”

And that will all be tested later this afternoon, as Daly unexpectedly will make his return for Leinster in the Pro14 inter-pro against Connacht in Galway, exactly one year to the day since his last senior appearance for the province.

It’s just reward for a player who has endured his fair share of injury hell but in maintaining a positive outlook throughout, Daly ensured that his goal of playing for Leinster remained central to everything he did, helping him through those long, cold winter mornings on his own in the UCD gym.

All things considered, you can only imagine his reaction when he learned that he was not only in the squad but straight back in the team, with Daly set to partner Noel Reid in the Leinster midfield for the final game of the regular season.

Maybe the season isn’t a complete write off, after all.

“I remember I sat down with Ed Byrne just after getting the injury and he said he probably learned more when he was out injured than any other time,” Daly explains.

“I went to every meeting during those nine months because I wanted to take something positive out of it. I wanted to use the time to come back a better player and I hope I have done that.

Tom Daly with Tom Williams The Carlow native will win his 10th senior appearance today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I can’t wait for the day that I get to pull on the Leinster jersey again. I’m looking forward to it and having had my fair share of injuries, hopefully, that’s me done for the time being. Now the focus is on moving forward and kicking on.”

Not before time, but now Daly just wants a clean run, the very least he deserves after everything he has been through and it will be a nice moment for him to run out at the Sportsground later, the culmination of a long road back and a personal triumph over adversity.

It’s only the start, though, and the hope is that a cursed season can, in fact, end on a high and will put Daly in good stead heading into pre-season, where he can wipe the slate clean and start again.

He knows it will be tough to break into the Leinster team, particularly the way things have gone so far this season for the eastern province and the presence of Henshaw, Ringrose, Reid and O’Loughlin ahead of him in the pecking order.

Competition is fierce, but when parsed against what he has endured, the challenge is something he’ll gladly embrace and relish.

“I want to give Leo a few headaches and my overall goal hasn’t changed at all — I’d love to wear Leinster’s number 12 jersey for a long time to come.”

Now’s the time to seize that chance.

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Ryan Bailey

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