While all eyes have been focused on the 12 new signings arriving through the gate at College Meadow during the summer, the rehabilitation of the 26-year-old former Dorking and Rosslyn Park centre could prove to be every bit as significant as Elthamians’ revamped squad prepare for a challenging second season in National One.
An elusive, side-stepping broken field runner with searing pace, equally comfortable in midfield or at full-back, Jeffery has appeared just once in an Elthamians shirt during two seasons at the club.
He initially joined in the summer of 2016 and made an immediate impression in pre-season, culminating in an outstanding performance in his only outing in OEs colours so far against a Connacht XV during a training camp in Galway.
He was earmarked as a certain starter and potential game changer by Director of Rugby Gavin Lach for the forthcoming National Two South League campaign. However, just sevens days before the season opener at Barnstaple, Jeffery ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. His season was over before it had even begun.
And his problems were only just starting. “Three months after the ACL reconstruction, I slipped on a step and loosened the work that had been done to the ligament and needed further surgery,” Jeffery said. “Then later on, working towards full fitness towards the end of pre-season in August 2017 I went over on it in training and had a minor meniscus (cartilage) tear which needed repairing in November 2017.”
For a player who had never previously experienced serious injury, it was a hammer blow, coming as it did just a few months into the next chapter of a hugely promising career at his new club.
“To have the two seasons that I have had has obviously been frustrating and of course there have been ups and downs,” Jeffery admitted. “There’s been times, like when I went over on it in pre-season in August last year for example, that you think it’s never going to be right and that naturally leads you to question whether you will play again.
“However, as much as possible I have kept a positive attitude and used it as an opportunity to improve in other areas, focusing on strength and weights in the gym etc, which you struggle to do during a long season due to knocks and training. I cannot thank Trev (Keys) and the medical team enough for their hard work over the past two seasons, whether that was keeping my attitude positive, or getting me to the position I am in now - ready to play - after so many setbacks. They have been monumental in making that happen.”
Jeffery continued “After three operations in the past 18 months, two serious and one minor, the amount of time we have taken since the third operation has been extended in order to get everything right this time, and it is finally feeling fresh and strong in training.”
Now the Sevens specialist is back in the 1st team mix and desperate to get back to playing regularly. “The leg is feeling the best it has since the very first operation back in September 2016,” he said. “The speed is coming back gradually and contact is all fine. It’s just building the confidence in side-stepping, which will only truly come in matches. Of course, the target is to break into the 1st XV this season. I am under no illusions as to how competitive it is and to the work that still has to be done, but I am happy with my progress so far. I am getting good feedback and if/when I am given that opportunity, I will take it with both hands.”
Jeffery’s return to action has delighted Sam Howard as the head coach looks to strengthen his attacking options ahead of the club’s rapidly approaching National One campaign.
“It’s great to have Ryan fit again,” he said. “He’s had a tough couple of years but like Ben King before him, he has trained incredibly hard and done everything the medical team have asked of him.
“We only saw a glimpse of what he’s capable of in our pre-season game in Ireland a couple of years ago and he looked electric. From what I’ve seen in pre-season, he looks to be very sharp again.
“It’s like having a new signing. I’ve said it a few times that I wanted to inject more pace into the backline and Ryan can definitely do that, either from centre or full-back. Yes, we have a lot of good backs in the squad now but that is a good headache for a coach to have and means that all the players need to be performing week in, week out in both training sessions and on Saturdays.”
For Jeffery, just having the chance to step onto a rugby pitch again after the dispiriting setbacks of the last two years, is a bonus and one he intends to grab with both hands.
“I never really understood why when sportsmen and women came back from serious injury, they always said ‘they came back stronger’ as I always imagined that mentally you'd always be worried that it would never quite be the same again,” Jeffery said. “However, now I get it. Being out of the sport that you love for such a long time only makes you more determined and more mentally strong to come back and enjoy it and give it your all.
“My mindset has not changed, however I know that I am lucky to be back out there, especially as there was always a chance that it might not happen again. And I am going to enjoy every minute of both training and any games I am selected for.”
Updated 16:02 - 24 Aug 2018 by Jon Edwards