Benjamin roaring back into England contention
December 20, 2013
Miles Benjamin gets the elusive try against Montpellier © Getty Images
Rugby players have a reputation, sometimes at their own cost, for pushing the boundaries of pain and the human body's capabilities. It took Miles Benjamin a week before he realised his neck was fractured.
Settling into a new club has its difficulties - that first day of school feeling. Ability sees a player signed, but few coaches can completely guarantee they will become well-integrated into a side. Take Stephen Donald. His CV was impressive, he had a World Cup-winner's medal and, by all counts, is an all-round good bloke. But his move to Bath was a failure, he failed to fit into their style of play.
For Benjamin, when he arrived at Leicester Tigers ahead of the 2012-13 season, he had earned a reputation as one of the country's promising wingers and a lethal finisher. The first hurdle was to overcome a foot injury, but on September 3 2012, he finally pulled on a Leicester shirt for the first time - albeit for their second string against, of all people, East Midlands rivals Northampton.
"I was running across the pitch to make a tackle and when that happened, I felt pain through my neck," Benjamin told ESPN. "I didn't make contact with my shoulder so his weight and mine, I think it was Scott Armstrong, went straight through the top of my neck so it compressed my neck and fractured one of the vertebrae that had come out of alignment. It was a bit of a nasty one. We didn't know what it was until the following week.
"I didn't do training for a day or two because it was stiff, but then it loosened up so I went out and did a training session. But then I happened to knock my head on someone and that was painful straight away. We had the scan and luckily we got it in time."
The original prognosis was promising. The surgeon said Benjamin would have to go through the tiresome process of wearing a neck brace but the injury should, through the wonders of the human body, repair itself. But it was not to be.
"It turned out after Christmas, when I visited the surgeon, it did need surgery. I had that in January and since then I went back into the neck brace for eight to ten weeks or so. And after that, it was a case of rehabbing and waiting for it all to heal."
Another spell of rehabilitation was ordered and more hours sat in front of the television, neck upright in fashion befitting a giraffe, watching hours and hours of boxsets while waiting for his girlfriend to return from her day job. "She was amazing, it wasn't easy for her. She's a teacher and she has screaming kids all day but then had to come back and feed and nurse me. It was tough on both of us but she was great."
There was never any prolonged thought of retirement for Benjamin, his surgeon, Peter Hamlyn, had already helped Geoff Parling and Tom Croft back into fully attritional rugby after they picked up serious neck injuries and he was assured his should recover fully.
Spring - a season of transition, one including those green buds of growth and for Benjamin, optimism. Rehabilitation saw him work relentlessly on rebuilding the neck muscles, by his own admission he looked like ET as "my neck was a little twig". And by July, he was back holding a rugby ball.
A season had been missed, one which saw Leicester crowned Premiership champions but that was an experience Benjamin felt isolated from. "When you have just been in rehab, when you are sore, that's quite a hard thing to get your head around. You want to be a part of it and celebrate with the boys so that's difficult. When you join a new club and settle down, the best way to do that is to play and train."
But with the Tigers bringing in new faces, there was a feeling of the new season being a chance to start afresh. For Benjamin, the pre-season saw him become reacquainted with his new team-mates and also, having to learn his profession once again.
"I remember when you start training again and you play the first couple of matches, you make mistakes that you are shocked you could have made. It's just an issue of having that much time away from the game as you're not tackling, you're not running around and you're not watching too much footage."
Miles Benjamin's neck stands up to the task © PA Photos
October 11, 2013, 404 days after he last pulled on a shirt for the Tigers in anger, Benjamin was back in the squad in a match in Ulster which saw him make his Heineken Cup debut. Four more matches followed in both the Premiership and the Anglo-Welsh Cup but his first try for the Tigers was proving elusive.
That was until the 12th minute against Montpellier, when, like the proverbial buses, he clinched his moment, twice - it was his first try in first-team rugby since April 21, 2012 when he scored against London Irish for Worcester, 538 days previous.
"I was still recovering when I got the chance of the second one, my lungs were on fire, but it was nice to score. When you're a winger, most of them, when you leave the pitch, you will not be satisfied unless you've scored. It was nice to get a couple and at Welford Road. I am a bit embarrassed looking back over just how much I smiled, but there was a lot of release in that moment."
Talk of England inevitably follows as the public search for a hero to pin World Cup hopes on. Breaking your neck is an experience to ground an individual, and while those hopes of international recognition are inevitably fleetingly crossing Benjamin's mind, the events of the last nine months have taught him to remain focused on immediate goals.
"Two months ago I could not have felt any further from the England reckoning but to hear my name mentioned again is nice. I've played a lot in the Premiership and a few times for the Saxons so I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about the next step, it's the next logical step in terms of where you want your career to be going. But my focus is on Leicester and trying to keep my place in the side."
Up next is Saracens on Saturday and while there will be 46 pleased players in the two squads relieved at having been given the chance to impress, Benjamin may just be the most thankful individual in Welford Road.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.