As Abby Dow lay prone on a stretcher in the Kingsholm tunnel last April, she feared her dream of playing at Rugby World Cup 2021 was over.
Dow had been England’s in-form back-three player heading into the Women’s Six Nations match against Wales, having scored eight tries in her previous eight test appearances.
Less than 15 minutes into the match in Gloucester, though, disaster struck as she suffered a broken leg while being tackled.
Following a lengthy pause, Dow left the pitch to a standing ovation from a then-record crowd for a Red Roses match in England and applause from both sets of players. But sucking on oxygen, she could not help thinking the worst.
“I just remember being in that tunnel and my friends and family came. I thought I was that person who didn't make it,” Dow recalled.
“You always hear the horror stories of that person who was on form and then all of a sudden, they get injured, and they miss out on the event.
“We've been building to this event for five years and… ‘it was me all along’ is kind of what was going through my head.”
“We’re going to try”
In the aftermath of the incident, Dow was taken to Gloucester Royal Hospital before being transferred to the Cromwell Hospital in London for surgery.
The initial prognosis was that she would not play rugby again for at least nine months, but working closely with England’s lead physiotherapist Emily Ross, the pair agreed to try everything to get her on the plane to New Zealand.
Dow says Ross “has just been such a lovely human” and with her help she was able to exceed expectations in her recovery, getting back onto the training pitch in a little over five months and being named in England’s RWC 2021 squad last week.
In the early stages of her rehabilitation, Dow used five devices to work on different aspects of the injury. “I was a machine!” she joked.
Dow was also able to seek advice from male Harlequins flanker Will Evans, who suffered a similar injury in 2021. She is grateful to her friends, family, and team-mates and coaches at Wasps, too, who supported her and drove her to appointments.
“Emily, the head physio, was actually in [the surgery] and she was like, ‘We're going to try. The best we can do is try’,” Dow said.
“For the first two or three months, it was very much the million-dollar question: am I still on track to make it?
“So, I think just almost having people say it is a possibility, from being unlikely to a possibility to oh, very likely to suddenly, you're selected, I think it's just been a very fortunate transition for my stress levels, I'd say!”
Testing her recovery
Wasps coach LJ Lewis paid tribute to the determination, drive and positive mindset that Dow has displayed since suffering the injury, describing her as “phenomenal”.
“Her rehab has gone very well but that will be down to the fact that a) she’s been guided very well but b) she's done all the right things,” Lewis told World Rugby.
“Rehab isn't just about doing the exercises, it's all the stuff around it and I do know she's been very, very diligent around these sorts of things.
“It also just shows the kind of mindset she has too. She's a real competitor and she's put a lot of her time and energy into becoming a world champion. An injury like this can come at the wrong time and it just shows the mindset that she has, it’s not going to stop her.”
It remains to be seen whether Dow is fit enough to start when England’s RWC 2021 campaign gets underway against Fiji at Eden Park on 8 October.
She admits that could prove as much a mental challenge as physical one as she searches for the confidence to get back on the pitch in a test match for the first time since that April day in Gloucester.
As she approaches the showpiece tournament, Dow likens the next stage of her recovery – playing again – to sitting exams at university.
“I relate it quite a lot to when I was doing my course because I think that's the last time I was under that sort of stress and pressure,” she added.
“You know, when you just finally hand in your dissertation, you're like ‘right, God’ and then you realise you've got all your exams to do. Now I'm about to go and sit all my exams.”