The outpouring of emotion on social media from rugby supporters, team-mates,ex-professionals and pundits alike spoke volumes.

Major injuries are always a tragedy, but this one cut a little deeper. Jack Willis’ pained cries into the echoey Twickenham Stadium were haunting, as was the replays of the ‘crocodile roll’ that ended his third Test cap so abruptly.

Why? Because he’s been there before. While we await the full diagnosis of the damage done to his left knee, looks on faces and early noises coming out from the  England camp suggest the Wasps ace is set for another long spell on the sidelines.

Rewind three years, almost to the day, and Willis produced what many consider to be his ‘breakthrough’ performance in Wasps’ 44-22 defeat of Harlequins – in the shadows of Twickenham at The Stoop.

Reduced to 14 men after Kyle Eastmond’s early red card, Wasps needn’t have worried, as within their ranks was a 21-year-old playing to the power of three.

Jack Willis of Wasps

He went on to win the Premiership’s player of the month award for February 2018 and his form in helping fire Wasps into the top-four earned him a first England call-up for that summer’s tour to South Africa.

“I knew it was going to be announced at 8.45 so I had a little look at my name and I thought ‘am I called Jack Willis?’ I double checked. It’s incredible,” he said on May 16, 2018.

“My aim has got to be to try and feature out on tour. I think you’ve always got to want to learn out there and it’s always going to be a learning experience alongside that.”

Troublesome

Three days later, he an ACL rupture to his right knee and fractures to his left ankle during Wasps’ 57-33 Premiership play-off semi-final defeat to Saracens. No Premiership final to plan for, no South Africa tour to pack for.

His main rival for the seven shirt, the then 19-year-old Tom Curry, played all three Tests and has motored to 29 caps for his country at the tender age of just 22. Willis, now aged 24, has just three.

Jack Willis published this photograph from his Instagram account after ankle and knee surgery
Jack Willis published this photograph from his Instagram account after ankle and knee surgery

After 40 gruelling weeks away from the pitch, Willis made his return towards the end of Wasps’ ill-fated 2018-19 campaign. But after three appearances it was clear something wasn’t right. It wasn’t his knee causing issues but a troublesome ankle.

It ended his season after just 168 minutes – along with his hopes of being a late bolter into England’s World Cup squad.

Some 29 weeks later, a figure swelled by the bloated off-season heading into the 2019/20 season, Willis made a second return to action against Northampton Saints in the Premiership Cup.

Arriving from the bench, months of anguish were released with a roar of delight as he swiftly scored a try in a 36-32 away win at Franklin’s Gardens.

Having scored only three times in his first 36 Wasps appearances, he would go on to register 15 in his next 30 matches in black and gold – and two tries in 52 minutes for his country.

Friends forced to retire

During this period, Willis was forced to endure the hardship of seeing two fellow knee injury victims at his club, Marcus Garratt (aged 24) and Alex Rieder (28), retire from professional rugby. Colleagues, friends, whom he endured hours of painstaking rehabilitation alongside.

Allied by his phenomenal work at the breakdown, Willis became the feel-good story Wasps and English rugby needed during the unprecedented turmoil of 2020.

Jack Willis, Alex Rieder and Marcus Garratt

Inspired by their jackaling master, Wasps went all the way to a Twickenham Stadium final where they were pipped to the title by Exeter Chiefs.

His runners up medal added to haul of personal accolades that had come his way, including the Premiership’s Player of the Season, Land Rover Discovery Award, RPA’s coveted players’ player honour.

It was form Eddie Jones couldn’t ignore any longer. Willis was included in the England squad that would compete in the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup and finish off the remaining 2020 Six Nations match against Italy.

Willis missed out in Rome but started the following Test against Georgia. Two years, five months and eight days after the date when he might’ve made his debut in Johannesburg before 55,000 fans, the player rejected by London Irish in his early teens sung the national anthem at an empty Twickenham Stadium. A quarter-of-an-hour later, club-mate Joe Launchbury man-handled his buddy over the line for a maiden international try.

Wise head

Across a multitude of interviews, Willis remained humble and quietly, unassumingly, inspiring. Tales of gaining plumbing qualifications alongside his younger brother Tom, also a back rower at Wasps, became well-told as did his business venture within the property sector with retired ex-Wasp, Alex Lundberg.

A wise head on broad shoulders.

The nut that was left to crack was nailing down a regular England spot. Something which had been problematic for a list of Wasps players, chiefly Danny Cipriani and Christian Wade, during the Eddie Jones era.

Jack Willis scores for England

A minute after arriving onto the pitch for his Six Nations debut against Italy, he landed a close-range try that wouldn’t have hurt his chances of a start further down the road of the competition.

Then came the moment that chilled the hearts of thousands of rugby supporters, including my own. Sebastian Negri’s body pushed Willis’ left knee, not the right one that was injured in 2018, to bend in an unnatural position.

The term ‘crocodile roll’ exploded on social media but it matters little for Willis, who barring a miracle, looks set to be heading down the long road of rehabilitation once more.

If that proves to be the case, it’s an unspeakable injustice for a player of his talents, in this a British and Irish Lions year (all being well).

The crumb of comfort that can be taken is this. Jack came back stronger, both in body and mind, from his first bitter experience of a major injury.

Everyone in English rugby, and beyond, will be willing him on to repeat that for a second time so we can all celebrate the talents of wonderful young player once more in the not-so-distant future.





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