Of all the positives to come out of Northampton Saints’ 22-17 victory at Wasps last Saturday, one of the most heart-warming was the return to action of Ollie Sleightholme.
The match at the Ricoh Arena was the first time the 20-year-old had been able to charge down the wing with ball in hand in just over a year.
It was the first time Sleightholme had to miss anything like such a long period (hopefully, he never will again during his career), with a succession of setbacks following a hamstring injury initially suffered against London Irish in January 2020 holding him back.
The England U20 international appeared keen to make up for lost time, with his performance – including an involvement in Shaun Adendorff’s try – earning him praise from Director of Rugby Chris Boyd.
Asked how it felt to finally be back, Sleightholme said: “It felt really good – my body didn’t feel as good as my mind, I guess, but it was really good to be back out there with the lads.
“It was just the case of it being a very, very long road back, thanks to a few injuries that have added up over time.
“It got to the point where I actually realised it had been a year, so it was nice to get back out there and it was really enjoyable.”Ollie Sleightholme
The result, as much as his own comeback, means Sleightholme now has another happy memory against Wasps, the team he scored against 15 seconds into his Gallagher Premiership debut in 2018.
The fact he was having to play in front of an empty stadium, rather than the full house at Franklin’s Gardens in his previous outing, is one of the biggest indicators in what has changed in the meantime.
Indeed, the initial lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic meant he was prevented from continuing his rehab with the club’s physios for around six weeks.
“That made it quite difficult because it was a case of the people that know what they’re talking about can’t help you,” Sleightholme said.
“It was almost a case of trial and error in seeing how my recovery was going.
“It was difficult, but it wasn’t something I could change. It was just a case of working as hard as I could to get back as quick as I could.”
As we know now, Sleightholme’s road back hit a few bumps during the second half of the year and it is a testament to his character that he came through such a tough period so strongly.
He admits he could never have done so on his own, however, with his family, including his dad Jon – who just happens to be a former Saints winger with experience of dealing with injury setbacks – being as important as ever.
“I think that was the main thing that helped me get through it, the support I had from my mum, my girlfriend, my dad, brother, stuff like that,” Sleightholme said.
“My dad was telling me stuff I needed to hear, stuff like ‘you can’t change it, work hard to get back as quick as you can and do as much as you can.
“If something goes wrong – like it did with me a few times – then you can’t prevent that because you’ve worked as hard as you can.
“Stuff is going to happen and it’s not always going to go your way, so it’s a case of how you come back from that.”
One thing Sleightholme can’t wait to do now is run out onto the pitch at the Gardens again, even though there won’t be a home crowd present to properly welcome him back.
The key now for Saints is to build on the form they’ve shown on their travels at Gloucester and Wasps, with a trip to Exeter Chiefs the next assignment for Boyd’s side after tomorrow’s match against Newcastle Falcons was unexpectedly cancelled.
Sleightholme said: “It will be a different experience for me, with an empty Gardens, when I get the chance to run out there again.
“A key part is improving on how we’ve performed in our last two games. The last two weeks have given us a lot of confidence going into these next few games, but we’ll have to improve again against Exeter as they are a very strong side.”