Harry Mallinder could not hide his relief after a dream return to the first XV in Northampton Saints’ 33-20 Heineken Champions Cup triumph over Benetton Rugby.
After 15 months on the sidelines nursing a serious knee injury sustained in 2018, it took the former England Under-20s skipper just six minutes to make his mark – scoring in the corner in front of a jubilant Franklin’s Gardens crowd.
Once Taqele Naiyaravoro broke through the Benetton defence inside the 22, Mallinder ran a perfect support line to take the clever offload and dive over the whitewash. It was the first of five scores on the day which gave Saints a crucial bonus-point win, keeping them in the hunt for a Champions Cup quarter-final spot.
After being dealt such a cruel blow last season against Clermont, Mallinder would have been forgiven for wondering if the day of his comeback would ever come.
And while he had to dig deep during the recovery period, Mallinder admitted the prospect of returning to action in a Black, Green and Gold jersey was what dominated his thoughts in recent months.
“I thought about it every single day,” he said. “To be honest, every second thought is about playing and running around.
“The hardest thing this week was containing my excitement and not playing the game too early. It was just incredible to get back out there and contribute to the team.
“When you’re out for 15 months, you have moments where it’s really tough. There were a lot of hard days, a lot of sleepless nights – they were emotional times for me and my family, and it was certainly challenging.
“When you’re out for 15 months, you have moments where it’s really tough. There were a lot of hard days, a lot of sleepless nights – they were emotional times for me and my family, and it was certainly challenging.”Harry Mallinder
“I had an incredible group of people supporting me; whether it be the medics here at the Club, my surgeon himself or my support network in my friends and family. They’ve really made the difference and helped me through.
“I’ve learned the art of resilience, I’ve learned a lot about myself and to have come through this and to be back feeling better than ever is a huge achievement for me. If I can get through this and feel how I do now, then it’s a definite positive for the future.”
A momentous personal milestone warranted a big celebration, and for Mallinder, this took the form of a ceremonial haircut the night before the game.
He said: “That was always my plan. I felt like when I got injured and I knew that it would be such a long time that I could take the hair with me.
“It was a reminder every single day of how long it had been, how much hard work I had done and how testing it had been.
“Last night was a big occasion. It was a big moment for me, cutting it all off. I feel an awful lot lighter and my neck is a little bit cold – and I presume that’s how it’ll be if, in ten years time, I go the same way as my old man!
“It’s good to have gotten rid of those golden locks.”