AT the age of just 23, Cornell du Preez was told to start getting used to the idea that his rugby career might have come to a premature end, after suffering a horror ankle injury whilst playing for Edinburgh against the Dragons in October 2014.
The South African back-rower, who had arrived in the Scottish capital in September 2013, and was named Edinburgh’s player of the season at the end of his first campaign with the club, suffered a fracture-dislocation during a fairly innocuous tackle situation that fateful night.
Video footage of the incident, available on YouTube, shows the player’s foot hanging limply from the end of his leg immediately after suffering the gruesome injury, as he beckons desperately towards the bench for help. It is tough viewing for anyone of a remotely squeamish disposition. He is clearly in agony and gas is administered as paramedics attend to him on the pitch.
Du Preez was rushed straight to the orthopaedic department at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary where he underwent surgery, and he was subsequently warned that it might be time to think about what he was going to do after hanging up his boots. But the injured man had other ideas.
“At the time, even though they told me that I might not be able to play again, in my head I wasn’t going to let that be an option. I know my body and I can feel if I am still going to be able to play or not. I was 23 at the time, so still young, with my whole career ahead of me, and I wasn’t ready to let it go,” he recalls.
“I was out for about six months before I was told that everything looks alright and I can get on with my career.”
Du Preez astonishingly made it back to play five matches for Edinburgh at the end of that same season, but the after-effects of the injury lingered on for another two years – in a way they still haunt him.
“That’s something you have to get around mentally – that it might be sore sometimes and you just have to get along with it – but it took me time to adapt to that and get used to the fact that it sometimes might be sore,” he says.
As luck would have it, his first game back was a rematch against the Dragons – this time in Edinburgh’s successful Challenge Cup semi-final clash at Murrayfield. He also played in the final – a defeat to Gloucester – and in the last three league games of the campaign. The following season he featured in 27 of the 28 competitive matches the club played.
Du Preez had clearly lost none of his durability after his injury set-back, but it was hard to escape the sense that his general form had not recovered. He looked heavier than before, which was fine, but the dynamism which had made him such a handful to opposition defences pre-injury was not as evident.
It didn’t help that he was returning to an Edinburgh team struggling desperately for confidence and form. Du Preez seemed to personify the general feel of the club – hard-working but sluggish compared to what we all knew was possible.
Clean-up surgery on his ankle during the summer of 2016 meant the following season started slowly, and he played most of the first two months of the campaign for Heriot’s in the BT Premiership, before a spate of injuries prompted a call-up to the full national squad during the autumn Test series.
He didn’t play in any of those games, but did manage to make his international debut during the 2017 Six Nations, coming off the bench in that capitulation against England, and doing the same again against Italy in the final game of the championship the following week.
But when he wasn’t involved in Scotland’s 2017 summer tour or in the national training camp held at St Andrews last August, it felt like he might be in the process of falling off the international radar under Gregor Townsend.
Two very important things changed for Du Preez leading onto this season, which helped him back into the Scotland set-up for the Autumn Tests, and then allowed him to grasp the opportunity with both hands when injury, suspension and loss of form left Townsend short-handed in the back-row for the match-day 23.
Firstly, the arrival of Richard Cockerill has reinvigorated Edinburgh, with Du Preez revelling in the role he is being asked to play by the feisty Englishman.
“I used to hang out wide a bit and try to create opportunities out there with the old game-plan we had, but now I am more of a carrier in the tight areas – I’m happy with that, it gives me more ball,” explains the player.
“With Cockers coming in, the forwards are going well. I think I’m getting back to the performance levels I had the previous few years [before the injury]. He’s done a lot for the club – especially the mentality about creating a winning environment.”
“He’s been good for me – his honesty is good. But also, the back-row is so competitive you have to put in your best game in every weekend – which obviously drives things on.”
Secondly, and more significantly, Du Preez has finally been able to come to terms with the lingering pain from that ankle injury.
“I said to Gregor when we were having a one-on-one in the Autumn that this is probably the first year when I can say I am training without worrying and without it being sore all the time. So, it is the first time I have been able to think just about the rugby, with nothing in the back of my head about the pain,” he says.
“It will be there for the rest of my life, I guess, but you find ways to manage it.”
After impressing off the bench against Samoa in the first of Scotland’s three matches last November, Du Preez was added to the starting fifteen to play the next week against New Zealand when Ryan Wilson dropped out through injury, and featured again off the bench in that memorable final match against Australia.
Du Preez may be bulkier than he was when he first arrived in Scotland but will never be a big beast by international standards, and the concerns expressed during the Autumn about a lack of a true heavyweight in the Scottish back-row have not completely disappeared just because Scotland exceeded all expectations during that series.
The Six Nations, which kicks off in just over two weeks’ time, is a far more attritional sequence of matches, but Du Preez – not surprisingly – shares Townsend’s belief that size isn’t everything.
“You can always offer something different. You don’t have to be the biggest, if you can put in some skill-work and a bit of foot-work, it changes up a lot of things. You can still find gaps and make metres in attack,” he reasons.
“If you look at a guy like Hamish Watson – he’s not the biggest guy ever, but he keeps running through defences like they are not there. So, it is about what you do with the size you have got.”