Rekindling the passion for rugby
October 24, 2013
Rhys Priestland in full flight for Wales © Getty Images
Fitting four into one. That's the mission Warren Gatland faces when he sits down and assesses just who will start at fly-half for Wales against South Africa in the first of their autumn internationals.
Tuesday's squad announcement saw Rhys Patchell, Dan Biggar and James Hook all called up. And then there was Rhys Priestland, the man who guided the country to the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup. The great hope.
Pressure does weird things to rugby players. Some thrive in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium - your Leigh Halfpenny's for example - while for others, it can make them feel very small. Priestland has experienced both sides of the coin.
In round one of the Heineken Cup, the Twickenham Stoop witnessed a special performance. It was not one from their heroes sporting the quartered shirts, instead, it was from West Wallians, Priestland's Scarlets. He was at the forefront of their 33-26 triumph combining lethally with Scott Williams at No.12. They tore Harlequins to shreds and looked like they were enjoying the experience.
But Priestland has not always enjoyed his rugby. At Twickenham in the 2012 Six Nations, Priestland experienced his nadir against England where, put frankly, he had a mare. But Gatland stuck by him and Priestland guided Wales to the Grand Slam. A summer tour to Australia followed and then came the autumn internationals.
Things did not go to plan for Priestland nor for Wales. Wales lost to Argentina and then Samoa, it was at this point Priestland sought the advice of a sports psychologist.
"The season before was such a long season and coming towards the end of that, I was getting both knees strapped, both shoulders and it just wasn't really enjoyable," Priestland told ESPN. "I didn't have much of a break and in the first gym session in pre-season I did something to one of the disks in my back. I wasn't really enjoying it as my body was in pain and I was going through games where I'd bend down and pick the ball up and my back would go.
"I just struggled with everything.
"Heading into the autumn internationals, I got picked and I just didn't want to be there to be honest. I wasn't enjoying my rugby and I wasn't looking forward to coming into training on the Monday. I sat down after the Samoa game with Rob Howley and I saw the sports psychologist who works closely with the squad - I saw him during the World Cup and the Six Nations - and I went back and had a chat with him. That put things into perspective.
"I didn't really chat to anyone about how I felt, rugby and all that, but it's nice to get stuff off your chest. I felt like a new man after that. I played against Australia and New Zealand and felt I had turned a corner, but the game after that I ruptured my Achilles. I felt like I had turned things round and had a more positive outlook on stuff. But I then had another, enforced, nine months to really think about things."
It was a cruel blow for a man who had re-found his love for the game but it put everything into perspective. "It's never a great time to rupture your Achilles but I've got to take the positives from that situation. There are so many people who are worse off than me, doing jobs they don't really enjoy so I don't complain about training and the rain anymore."
Rhys Priestland in action for the Scarlets © Getty Images
He confounded the medics to get back fit in time for the end of the RaboDirect PRO12 season and had one eye on Wales' tour to Japan. But then injury struck again, the old Achilles injury flared up and Priestland was back on his sofa, watching his team-mates in the semi-final of the tournament, Biggar starting for Wales in Japan and Patchell making his Test debut.
He admits the setback led to him being "really run down" and he spent the next month or two focusing on anything and everything away from the game. Fast-forward to the start of the current season and Priestland is back to his best.
He was the standout fly-half in the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup and Gatland will find it hard to ignore his claims for the Welsh fly-half spot. The Quins game, in many ways, was a watershed moment for the Scarlets and for Priestland, it saw everything clicking into place.
"Down at the Scarlets, a lot of us have been together for a long time. It's frustrating when we lose as when that happens, we know we are a better team than what we showed. But we had the intensity and it clicked. After having a serious injury, it makes you realise how lucky you are to be a rugby player. And in games like that, you realise all the rehab and the hard work is worth it."
After playing Zebre on Friday night, the attention will switch to Wales and the autumn Tests. Priestland knows more than most not to take the sport for granted. "I haven't thought about it at all. I've been working with Neil Jenkins a bit so we just see how it goes now."
The re-emergence of Hook, Biggar ticking over at an impressive level for Ospreys and Patchell improving by the game means Priestland's place in the Wales side is far from guaranteed. But if he gets that No.10 jersey for the Springboks Test, then he, more than most, will realise just how special it is.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.