456 days. That’s how long Harry Mallinder endured on the sidelines after suffering a knee injury in October 2018 before making his return in the Heineken Champions Cup in January.
A lot has changed in that time. A World Cup has passed by, Chris Boyd has got his feet firmly under the table at Franklin’s Gardens, and numerous youngsters have emerged in an exciting Northampton Saints side.
But at just 23 years of age, Mallinder’s second coming is already under way, and he’s determined to enjoy it.
On his return to Gallagher Premiership Rugby last month, the full-back hit the ground running like he never left, scoring Saints’ only try against Bristol Bears. The end of the journey in which he says he became a better person, as well as player.
“I was unbelievably excited (to return to action),” said the Sale native ahead of Saints’ 16-10 victory at Worcester Warriors on Friday evening. “I think the hardest battle for me in coming back was containing my excitement.
"I felt quite hard-done-by with my injury..."— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) March 6, 2020
"When you see what some of the kids are going through, it's insignificant."@HarryMal10 used his time away from the pitch to make a difference in the community 💚🖤💛
Fantastic to see 👏 @SaintsFdation @SaintsRugby pic.twitter.com/zpPsW4uILZ
“I’ve had such a long time away from the game and every second thought for me was about playing. When you have that taken away from you and don’t know the extent of how long it will be, it’s really challenging. To be playing and enjoying it is my only focus at the minute.
“I’ve watched [my try] back so many times and got quite emotional at the time. When you score you get some reflection before the restart.
“The way the boys got around me when I scored meant so much for me because they knew how long I’ve been away for and the reaction I got from the crowd was really special.”
The road back to full fitness was a long one for Mallinder. While he was away, a young crop of Saints players had been called upon, most of which were close friends, many now featuring for England in the current Guinness Six Nations – including the likes of George Furbank and Lewis Ludlam.
Despite seeing his friends flourish in a Saints jersey, where a new style of expansive rugby was being implemented, he was more concerned with adapting to a situation he never thought he would find himself in – having a long-term injury.
“There were times where I would wake up in the morning and not be able to walk properly, let alone run,” he reveals.
“The physios told me to do things and I couldn’t do it at times. It was really tough. I never expected to be in that position.
“We all expect to have a great career and limited setbacks, but my support network and experience of people around me who went through similar situations.
“Seeing all the young players coming through made it even harder for me. They are my best mates and people I’ve come through the system with.
“The list is endless. All the guys that have come through doing well in the last year are my best mates.
“I just wanted to get out there and be amongst that. To have that now is an incredible feeling.
“Stepping back from the game, I could see we’d been playing incredible rugby. We want to keep up our performance, we are working as hard as possible and I just want to get my hands on the ball – playing this way means it happens a lot more.”
At the heart of the community
Despite the long hours in rehabilitation and extra sessions on the bike, Mallinder admits there were some positives to missing the entirety of 2019.
He invested a lot of his time into the local community through the Northampton Saints Foundation and now reflects on his time out of the game as a ‘positive experience’.
He continued: “When I got injured I wanted to find something which meant something to me as much as rugby. The Foundation provided that for me.
“They do some unbelievable work across Northamptonshire in helping people from less privileged backgrounds to get back into education or work through sport.
“It put my situation into perspective, realising what some of these kids go through – my situation was insignificant. I gained so much from it.
“I now see it as a positive experience because it has made me a better player and person.”
While it is early days, Mallinder maintains hope of eventually joining fellow club-mates Courtney Lawes, Ludlam and Furbank in Eddie Jones’ England set-up in the future.
He was first called into the squad in 2017 when England toured Argentina, but has yet to win his debut cap.
For the moment though, it is one step at a time and the former Rugby School captain is concentrating on making the most of being back in the domestic fold.
“I don’t really think about that (international appearances) now,” he says. “Obviously I want to play for England at some point in my career but when my injury came along, it was taken away for me.
“Now it’s about enjoying my rugby at Saints, playing consistently well and hopefully it will go from there.
“I still have goals in the back of my head but don’t shout about them. I’m enjoying each game and soaking it all up. Enjoy every little bit, good or bad.
“I think I’m on my way back to where I should be. Slowly it’s coming back to me – I’m getting more comfortable with every game.”