Injuries are never easy but being stuck on the sidelines while his Northampton Saints teammates thrived under Chris Boyd last season made Mike Haywood hungrier than ever to get back on the pitch.
The 27-year-old hooker sustained a serious knee injury in the early part of 2018-19 on his 200th appearance for Saints, which ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign.
It was a cruel blow for Haywood – a Northampton academy product who played a major part in the club’s biggest successes – at a time when the men in Black, Green and Gold were starting to find their feet under Boyd.
“The younger hookers – James Fish and Reece Marshall – did really well when I was injured so it’s going to be a good tussle for the No.2 shirt.”Mikey Haywood
Having not been the victim of such a lengthy setback in his career up to that point, Haywood initially found it tough to come to terms with life away from the action but was buoyed by his team’s achievements on the field.
The Franklin’s Gardens outfit went on to secure a semi-final spot in the league – eventually going down to Exeter Chiefs in the last four – and clinched glory in the inaugural Premiership Rugby Cup final.
And Haywood admits that having missed out on the top four in the previous three seasons, he could not wait to get back amongst the squad and challenge for more in the new campaign.
“Watching the boys get their success at the end of last season just made me want to come back and make my impression on the team,” he said. “I wanted to be part of it.
“The injury was strange because I was so hyped up about getting my 200th cap I was a bit oblivious to its severity, but I soon realised it was pretty bad.
“I’ve had a few shoulder problems, but this was the worst injury I’ve had because the recovery was so much slower. I couldn’t walk for eight weeks and I had to rely on other people for everything which was really frustrating.
“But I was massively proud of the team. We’d gone through a bit of slump in the last few seasons, so it was brilliant to see Chris Boyd come in and do so well and I was massively looking forward to getting involved and trying to get back into the team.
“The younger hookers – James Fish and Reece Marshall – did really well so it’s going to be a good tussle for the No.2 shirt, especially when Dylan [Hartley] comes back as well.”
While Hartley remains in the treatment room, Haywood did make his long-awaited return in the Saints’ 35-16 win over Worcester Warriors, coming on as a first-half substitute for the injured Fish.
“Rugby has moved on and I feel that as a club we’re moving on and starting to play the sort of rugby that’s needed to contend for titles.”Mikey Haywood
The victory made it two wins from two for Saints after a 27-25 victory at defending champions Saracens on the opening weekend, and the former England youth international concedes he had butterflies before stepping back into the ring.
He said. “It was nice to get back on the pitch and get more game time than I was expecting. It had been such a long time.
“I was blowing a bit afterwards, but I’d been eased into things gradually and I’m definitely almost where I need to be now.
“The reception I got from the Franklin’s Gardens crowd will be a memory I won’t forget. It was amazing and made me want to come out and perform well.
“During the week I knew I was going to be involved and I was waking up at 6:00am with a real nervous energy because I didn’t want to be the one to mess it up.
“In past seasons it’s been the early games that have been the big ones because it’s when you can stake a claim for success, but as soon as I went on the nerves disappeared and I went about my work. Hopefully that can continue.”
An unbeaten start sees Northampton top the Gallagher Premiership Rugby table in its early stages, and Haywood is confident that the positive atmosphere Boyd has built around the club can reap rewards.
But for now, he insists he and his teammates are merely focused on taking each game as it comes, as they look to solidify their spot at the top of the rankings ahead of the first of the European Champions Cup matches.
“Of course, everyone’s got an image in their heads of lifting trophies at the end of the season, but you can’t just look at that end light; there’s a long way to go,” he said.
“I think we’ve got a good buzz around the camp and that correlates with good performances. If you’re down in the dumps in the background that’s how you perform on the pitch and you can see that.
“The biggest thing is that Chris Boyd has come in and brought a good brand of rugby and that can get the boys going just by itself.
“I wouldn’t compare it to previous years because things were really different then, but right now we’ve got a young, talented squad and the sky’s the limit.
“Rugby has moved on and I feel that as a club we’re moving on and starting to play the sort of rugby that’s needed to contend for titles.”