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Measuring cupboards and character

I awoke on Monday morning with a special feeling of excitement, anticipation, a sense of exhilaration and with just a hint of anxiety, as I determined to approach the next five days as game week. Since my knee has gained greatly in strength, my focus this week has been on getting mentally ready for the intensity of what happens between the four white lines. By treating it as game week, it is the start of a huge week for me – my possible return to the field after seven frustrating months on the side-lines!

It has been the most difficult seven months of my life. And while I appreciate that we grow in character when times are tough and days are dark, it has been a journey that I am glad is coming to an end. I say 'coming to an end' because of course plenty of hard work still lies ahead.

When injury strikes, the difficulty is that you are working incredibly hard just to get back to where you were. You are not moving forward as such, but rather merely trying to get back to the point where you were before you sustained injury. At the same time, your teammates are developing their game and improving technically as players, which is crucial to one’s development as a professional sportsman. I have focused on making incremental gains, albeit sometimes unnoticeable as one wades through the frustration of wanting progress to be quicker and more visible.

I read the blog I wrote just after my injury and I said it could take anything between six weeks and three months. I remember thinking when I wrote three months: 'surely not that long'. Seven emotionally frustrating months later here I am, but the ironic bottom line is that every heart-breaking setback and gut-wrenching rehab and training session will be worth every drop of perspiration if I do get to run on to the field on Saturday. My return to the playing field promises to be an emotional experience; I couldn’t be more excited!

My sister arrived from South Africa on Thursday. She will be staying with me until Christmas, and I am really keen to see her again. She is more culture and art-oriented than me, and has already told me about various places in and around Bath that we need to visit and experience. Sooner rather than later she will take me on a tour of this culturally-rich area. It will be so nice to have her in the crowd on Saturday if I do play, and I have no doubt that she will feel passionate as the newest member of the Bath faithful. It really is a special crowd, who support the team win or lose, in fine weather as well as in rain, wind and snow.

England beat New Zealand on Saturday in what must have been one of the most absorbing and impressive test matches in which England have ever played. I thought their performance was sublime – they were accurate from the beginning and tactically a step ahead of the mighty All Blacks. Huge credit to England not only for their superb rugby, but equally for their passion and belief in their systems and teammates.

The one controversial matter was obviously the fact that many of the New Zealand squad suffered from a stomach bug in the lead-up to the test. I was inspired afterwards when Richie McCaw refused to use it as any sort of excuse to explain away their disappointing performance. It’s obvious that after playing over 30 games in 2012, and fighting a stomach bug two days before a test match against a highly motivated, excellently organised England side, the detrimental effect on your performance will be substantial.

Many captains would have alluded to it, but McCaw gave credit to England for an outstanding performance, despite being obviously bitterly disappointed as it was the All Blacks' first loss after a 20-match unbeaten run. I thought it a touch of real class from McCaw, a great example to anyone involved in sport, as most seek to find excuses for defeat.

Last week Flouw asked me to help him build a cupboard, which ended up taking a lot longer than we anticipated. I was there for only the first two hours, but despite my keenness to help, François was more than happy to do most of the work on his own. He is somewhat of a perfectionist, so I ended up mostly making coffee and keeping the conversation going. His oft-quoted line follows the old maxim: “measure twice, cut once”. It was a valuable reminder as my tendency is to measure once and cut twice – which no doubt vindicates François’s decision to keep my participation to a minimum.

I think it ended up taking him 12 hours, but I must say it is a big enough cupboard to host a small family and their dog. Flouw has always been a bit of an enigma when it comes to his dress sense, so he has quite an impressive wardrobe.

While earlier in this blog I described the difficulty and frustration which is part of the process of recovering from an injury, every sportsman will appreciate that it will all end up being worth it.

For me, rugby is a wonderful way to express myself. I view it as a form of art, where I strive constantly to be creative in my pursuit of my masterpiece – the perfect game. I can challenge myself to reach places in my soul that are not easily accessible, to demand of myself that I remain true to my pursuit of personal excellence when every fibre in my physical being is threatening to shut down on me.

When I arrived in Bath, over 90 per cent of the people were strangers to me, and naturally, off the field conversations tend to start off similarly shallow as one faces the barriers of the unknown, and the fear of judgment which ensues takes time to diminish.

But the moment you cross the touchline of the rugby field there are no barriers; it is like a universal language in which players can communicate confidently. Everyone is equal and where you come from is of no concern. All that counts is using your physical and mental attributes, your emotional support from your teammates, and your playing skill, to produce a performance of such a standard that when you wake up on a Sunday morning feeling battered and bruised and you struggle out of bed, your first thought is: ''I can't wait for next Saturday.''

There is something so wonderfully special about going out into the arena as a united team of 15 players, willing to wreck themselves for one another, regardless of how well you know each other. Together you carry the hopes of thousands of people who spend their hard-earned money to bring their kids to the game to support their heroes, with those kids putting their hearts and souls into the hope that their team performs impressively and wins the match. It is our responsibility to do them proud and win or lose, they should at least see from the passion in our performance and dirt on our faces that we strove valiantly, and that defeat does not always represent failure. Only feeble surrender counts as failure.

Producing optimum performances each week is a massive challenge, especially doing so amidst the possible prospect of being written off by people, and regarded disrespectfully despite players’ offering maximum commitment. Challenge accepted!

Please leave any questions in the comment section below; I'll include the answers in next week's blog.

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