Rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament is one of the worst injuries an athlete can pick up in sport, with recovery taking up to a year after surgery.
Imagine, then, doing it twice, in different knees, in consecutive years. That’s what happened to Melbourne Rebels back-rower Brad Wilkin when he was at the Waratahs.
The flanker made it back but surely the worst was over? Not quite. In March last year, Wilkin suffered a third ACL injury while playing in Durban.
It was a gut-wrenching setback that even his family thought would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
But on Friday, 495 days after that agonising night and the third torturous rehab that followed, Wilkin will make his return to professional rugby when the Rebels tackle the Western Force at Leichhardt Oval.
Wilkin is an inspiration to teammates but yet to tell the tale. He is reluctant to speak before crossing the white line on Friday and with good reason.
His brother Aaron, a leading pro golfer, explains just how tough it has been.
“It was pretty upsetting for the whole family because we know how hard he’s worked,” said Wilkin of the third ACL. “You almost get to the point where you don’t really care if he plays footy, you just want him to be happy.
“We know how hard it is to be in the rehab group while everyone else is out training. It wears you down. We were just all worried about how he would deal with that again. I think introducing a sports psychologist has helped him deal with that a lot.
“It’s a shithouse injury to come back from but once again, he has come through it. That’s comes down to determination and resilience. I might be biased but there is not many out there as resilient as my brother. It makes me very proud.”
In February 2017, Wilkin had spent the best part of a year in the rehab room getting over his first ACL injury. He’d been named to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench for the Waratahs but in the final session of the week, Wilkin felt the other knee go.
“Mentally it was a lot of demons to fight off,” Wilkin told the Herald 15 months later, on the eve of what would be his actual NSW debut against the Chiefs in May 2018.
It was a moment to savour and one that Waratahs players and staff thoroughly enjoyed given the arduous road Wilkin had taken to get there.
After five more appearances off the bench that season, Wilkin was off contract. Luckily, the Rebels offered him a “lifeline” and took a punt on the injury-ravaged former Australian sevens representative.
An uninterrupted pre-season and consistent game time was a welcome reprieve from the monotony of the rehab room.
“He was our unsung hero,” said Rebels boss Baden Stephenson. “He was very influential but probably not getting the headlines.”
Finally, some continuity. Sadly, it didn’t last long though.
In the 56th minute of a match against the Sharks in Durban last year, Wilkin went in for a low tackle on hooker Akker van der Merwe and immediately clutched at his right knee.
He jumped up, tried to shake it off, but came from the field. Those in the sheds say Wilkin knew he’d done a third ACL, even without scans.
To say he was deflated was an understatement.
There were two options on the table; give up and accept the footy dream may be over, or strap back in and start over.
“I would have packed it in way earlier,” said brother Aaron. “It’s probably to his detriment but he’s got this goal so ingrained in his brain that he wants to be a Wallaby and he won’t stop until he does it.”
Rebels coach Dave Wessels added: “The whole squad is just really pleased to see him back because of the person he is but also the work he’s done to achieve that. Everybody who sees Brad play knows he has the potential to be something really special.”
Wilkin was close to reintegrating with the team out of rehab earlier this year but had further setbacks with a couple of frustrating hamstring injuries.
“He was devastated at the time but just knuckled back down,” Stephenson said.
Wilkin, now 24, doesn’t want to make a song and dance before he gets back on the park. There’s still time before kick-off as the Rebels look to continue their winning streak after a 29-10 victory over the Waratahs.
“What I don’t want to do with Brad is put any expectations on him,” Wessels said. “The key thing for him now is to just go out there and enjoy the game.”
It won’t be the easiest match for the Wilkin family to watch though. They’ve been through enough.
“He’s hungry but there will be a bit of anxious energy there,” Wilkin said. “Better that he’s coming off the bench so he can work into it.
“All we want is for him to have a few years out on the park injury free and really enjoy the game again because we know how much it means to him.”