Brothers in arms: Sandell and Wilkin’s sweetest victory

Winning a grand final is a great occasion for any player in any sport. Reaching the zenith of a season after all the blood, sweat and tears that it takes just to get to the big dance, is something to cherish. But to do so after a couple of years of not even knowing if your body was going to let you play again must be all the more rewarding, especially if you get to do so alongside a mate who has shared the very same harrowing journey with you.

So it was no surprise that amongst all the raucous celebrations in the Sydney University dressing room after their Intrust Super Shute Shield title-winning victory over Warringah, there were two faces in particular wearing the widest of jubilant grins.

For Brad Wilkin and Matt Sandell, it was a chance to enjoy an experience that both had feared may never be afforded them, such is the dark and traumatic pathway they have been forced to tread over the last couple of years. And it was a time to finally revel in some positive reward from a game that has cruelly tested their resolve in spades.

Ask any player at any level, and they’ll all say that rehabbing from a serious injury is the worst and most challenging time in footy. So having to do that twice in your fledgling career, before you’ve even had a chance to make good on the promise that got you into a position to shine at the next level, must be a very bitter pill to swallow.

Long dark days spent training on your own and being part of a squad in name only, forced to watch on from the sidelines to cheer on the team as you fight the inner demons of frustration and despair, must be extremely taxing. So if you happen to go through that experience with the same person both times, the unique bond that has forged between you once you come out the other side, must be a very powerful thing.

This is exactly the scenario that Wilkin and Sandell, just 22 and 23-years-old respectively, have endured over the last couple of years.

Hailing from Yeoval, a small town in central west New South Wales some four and a half hours drive from Sydney, Wilkin moved to Queensland in his late teens and represented Queensland Schools and Australian Schools, before playing a season with Brisbane City in the inaugural NRC competition in 2014. From there he trained with the Reds and played Aussie Sevens, before returning to his home state and a chance to don the Waratahs jersey, in 2016. But a knee injury sustained at training was just the beginning of a horrific spell on the sidelines for the young flanker.

Raised in Mudgee, the popular wine hub just over 100kms east of Yeoval, Sandell has followed a similar path. A product of the famous Joey’s rugby nursery, he actually played alongside Wilkin in the Aussie Schools side in 2012/13, and got his reward for impressive club form at Sydney University with a Waratahs contract, also in in 2016. But unfortunately, the similarities in their story stretched to the fate of their bodies too, and the budding prop suffered a similar injury to his country cousin in club colours.

And that was just the start for him too.

Behind the Ruck sat down with both players after their grand final triumph to reflect on the journey they’ve shared together, the hurdles they’ve had to overcome along the way, and the elation at finally playing footy again and lifting the Shute Shield.

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There’s no easy way to step around what you’ve both been through, so I’m sorry to drag you back through some dark times, but can you just explain the when and how in terms of your injuries?

Brad Wilkin: “So, I’d just played my first game back from a minor hamstring strain for Sydney Uni, which was my first ever Shute Shield game against Manly. Then the very next week at Waratahs training, I planted awkwardly in a handling drill and did my right ACL.

“Only a couple of months later Matt did his ACL whilst playing for Uni, and we started a long and testing time together. Bryce Hegarty (ACL) and Jed Holloway (shoulder) also made up our rehab squad, and we pushed each other along the journey, which brought us a lot closer as mates.

“When I came back, I played two trial games for the Waratahs and took part in the Brisbane 10’s, before being selected to debut in Round 1 of Super Rugby 2017. But in the last training session for the week, I did my left ACL.”

Matt Sandell: “Yeah, I did the first knee in July 2016 in the warm up for Uni to play West Harbour at Concord Oval. I tore the ACL and MCL in my left knee as I was carrying into a pad. I had an ACL reconstruction a couple of days later, where they used my hamstring to replace the missing tendon. I then had six months recovery time on it before I was back in full training.

“The second knee was in January 2017 on my second day back of full training with the Waratahs, when I was going to make a tackle. It was the same knee and same injury – a torn ACL and MCL – as before. This time I waited a couple weeks before surgery, where I had an ACL reconstruction again, but they used my patella tendon as the replacement, and a lateral loop to stiffen up my knee. I wasn’t back in full training again for another 12 months, and didn’t play until March this year in Uni’s first trial against Easts.”

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Sandell playing for NSW Schools and Wilkin for Aussie Schools in 2013 – Photos: SPA Images

How much rugby have you missed out in total as a result?

MS: “It would be about 19 months where I wasn’t able to play footy.”

BW: “I only managed three games in approximately 18 months.”

Even in a sport as attritional as rugby, the odds of both of you sustaining such similar injuries so close together – twice – must be bloody long. But I guess you were able to lean on each other through it all too?

BW: “Yeah, before we knew it, it seemed like deja vu. We weren’t too far apart in terms of our programs so we were able to push each other along the whole way. My surgery was a bit simpler than Matt’s so I may have progressed slightly quicker, but by the time I left rehab we had probably spent a good 18 months together. The second time was definitely the hardest. But unfortunately, as rugby goes our rehab squad grew as the year progressed, which meant we were able to create a good, hard-working dynamic amongst us.”

MS: “During my first injury we were both in it together the whole time, but because Brad did his knee about a month or two before me, the last few weeks he was in modified training while I was still trying to catch up. The second one I spent the first couple of months on my own before he did his knee, and then he got through his rehab a lot quicker then me.”

BW: “I’ve got to know ‘Delly’ pretty well over our time together, and I think he now feels pretty comfortable throwing banter at me. Before he would probably prefer to just keep things close to his chest.”

MS: “Definitely spending that much time together has really made us close mates, and we both know how much work we put in to get where we are. However, we definitely had some moments during rehab where we just needed a break from each other!”

Was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn’t play rugby again?

BW: “The thought definitely crossed my mind. It’s always natural to have that sense of doubt as to whether you can return to the level you know you are capable of playing at. I remember saying to people once I did the second one that I wasn’t sure if I could go through the pain again. But those thoughts are pure emotion, and I realised I didn’t want to give up on my childhood goal just yet.”

MS: “It never got to the point of not being able to play again, but it did get close at times, especially after doing my knee the second time. It really made me doubt if my body could still hold up to playing footy. I think most doubts were if I’d be able to come back and play confidently again, and at the level I was at when I first got injured.”

How did you cope with the difficult day-to-day challenge of still being a member of a team, but not quite a part of it?

MS: “It’s difficult to cop most of the time, seeing all the boys playing and training together every day while you’re stuck on the sidelines, and only being able to do a little and spending most of the time with the physio’s trying to get your body right. On game day it was always a bit harder, especially missing the Shute Shield grand final in 2016, which hopefully I would have played in if I’d been fit. During 2017, it was just as hard watching all of the Tahs games with the boys in what was to be a very tough season for them, and not being able to do anything about it.”

BW: “Suiting up to watch the boys go to work week-in, week-out was super frustrating. But I was fortunate enough to have my studies to fall back on. I’m studying a Commerce Degree at the University of Sydney, so I tried to throw myself into as many units as I could manage. It was a good distraction from the daily grind and not being able to play rugby.”

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Sandell carries hard in his comeback for Uni against Easts – Photo: AJF Photography

I know most of the rehab was undertaken at the Waratahs, but it must be great to have a club like Sydney Uni to call upon on a daily basis if needed?

MS: “I only really came back to Uni to play games, but it’s great to have a club that supports its players so well, and to have so many resources and staff available to use if needed. The great thing about it is that even with all that they give for you, you still have to earn that assistance through the effort that everyone puts in at the club.”

BW: “It hasn’t been until this year that I’ve really benefited, having been away from the game for two seasons. I’ve learnt to understand my body in the time I was injured, and having the facilities at University allowed me to put in extra hours away from the Waratahs to get myself ready to play each week this season. It also helped that they have a healthy budget for tape, as I definitely put the physios to work each week!”

Talking of physios and S&C staff etc., they play a huge role in getting players back on track, and keeping you positive without getting a lot of plaudits. Who would you give a shout out to?

MS: “I’d like to thank all the Tahs physio/S&C staff, but in particular Shane Kertanegara our rehab physio, and Luke Vasu, who was the rehab S&C. We spent a lot of time with both of these guys during rehab, and without them wouldn’t have made it back onto the field. I’d also like to thank Dr David Wood who did both surgeries, Sharon Flahive the Tahs doctor, and Anna-Louise Bouvier, who I went to for some specialist physio work as well.”

BW: “There has been a lot of people that have been instrumental on my journey, too many to name. However, anyone that has worked with me knows their impact on me.”

So when did you know you were on the road to full recovery the second time, and when did you get back to playing week-in, week-out?

BW: “For me it was all about trusting the process and controlling what I could control. My first few games of the year were definitely the most testing, not only from an injury perspective but came against quality opposition in the Highlanders and Rebels in the Super Rugby trials. It was a struggle early on, but after stringing six-odd full games together for Sydney Uni, I started to feel comfortable again. I eventually stopped counting the number of games I’d played in a row and found myself back in a cycle of week-in, week-out footy and loving it.”

MS: “I had a lot of hiccups during my last recovery, and it was pretty hard to tell when I was really on my way. But once I got into training in January I was really feeling like I was getting there then. Once I started my first game against Easts in the trial I didn’t stop from there, and I was playing full games straight away.”

I guess one of the biggest hurdles is getting confidence back in the knee/s to know you can throw yourself in there again, especially in such a physical sport as rugby. Did it take a few games to get that back to a point where you were just able to concentrate on your footy?

MS: “Yeah definitely. I remember having to do a lot of pre-hab work before the first game because I had so many things I was worried about. But once I got on the field I didn’t find it that hard to just forget it all and play, even though I was a bit rusty on how to play. After that I became more and more confident in the knee every game, so much so that it’s not much of a worry now.”

BW: “Definitely. Rugby is a game where timing is important, and that took half a dozen games to get back to where I wanted it to be, as well as to trust my body by throwing it in to collisions and coming out the other end.”

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Wilkin goes in for an emotional try against the Brumbies – Photo: AJF Photography

The cruel reality is that just as your bodies allow you to play footy again, your contracts with the Waratahs come to an end. Brad, you were finally able to put a significant run of games together this year and show the rugby public in NSW what you’re all about – including that long-awaited debut for your home state. That must have been a great feeling after all you’ve been through?

BW: “Making my debut for the Waratahs was a special moment for myself and my family. They were the ones who always had belief in me and supported me along the way. Obviously, we would have liked to go one further for the Waratahs and win it. But I think looking back at where we came from the previous year, it showed great growth and potential in the squad.”

Unfortunately for you Matt, you didn’t get that chance. It must be hugely frustrating to have signed on at the Waratahs, and not get an opportunity to pull on the jersey and show the crowd what you can do?

MS: “Yeah, its been frustrating that over half the time I was signed with he club I was injured, which really hurt my chances of getting on the field and trying to prove myself. It’s been really great to see Brad go on to play Super Rugby this year because he was so close last year, and to see him finish the season off in the Tahs’ 23 was pretty awesome, and really gives me motivation to try get there myself.

“However, I’ve really enjoyed this year being able to just play good footy in a good Sydney Uni side, and prove to myself and others that I can still play good footy, and show why I was contracted in the first place. I’ve played 80 minutes for a lot of games this year and switched between loosehead and tighthead, so it’s been a great season for myself to just get back to playing rugby and enjoying every minute of it.”

What you have both been an important part of is this Sydney Uni side. How much fun was it playing with them, because from a watching perspective, you played exciting, physical footy, but you all worked hard for each other and seemed to get along?

BW: “One thing I know for sure is that what the boys do out on the field each weekend doesn’t happen by chance. This is a hard-working group who are constantly refining their skills and striving to become the best they can be. It’s been amazing to be a part of, and watch the team grow as the year has progressed.

MS: “Playing with Uni has been an absolute privilege this year. This is one of the best Uni sides I’ve ever been a part of, and not just because of the results. We’ve all really enjoyed each other’s company, and loved rocking up every night to rip into training while still having a laugh as we do it. It’s made it so easy to work hard for each other because no one wants to let each other down, and we all just work together. The blokes are such a great group, and we’ve all loved the type and style of footy we’ve played, and the results we got from it.

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Lining up for the anthem before the grand final – Photo: AJF Photography

And then there’s grand final day. 15,500 packed into North Sydney Oval as you take on the reigning Premiers Warringah, and a near-perfect performance off the back of a dominant forward pack sees you run out 45-12 winners. What was the occasion and game like for you?

MS: “After the semi-final against Manly, I felt really confident in our scrum and our forward pack, and that if we just did what we had been doing every week, we wouldn’t have a problem. We’ve had a strong scrum all year, and it showed when we had front-rowers come off the bench and do the same thing, if not better, and when you give a bloke like Jake Gordon a bit of go-forward and a bit of space, he’s amazing. Making the grand final was such an added bonus when I came into this year just wanting to play some footy, but it’s pretty awesome to come out as Premiers.”

BW: “We didn’t have to try and re-invent the wheel for grand final week, it was just about doing the fundamentals really well. The boys worked hard all year, and a lot of people don’t see the effort that they put in, and I had 100% confidence that if we just played our normal game and stuck it to them in defence, we would come away with the win. There’s no fear in this team, we feed off each other’s energy and have just really enjoyed defending for each other this year. And there’s nothing better than whacking the opposition with 14 of your mates.

“You sort of have to pinch yourself a little bit when you’re out there in front of that crowd. But we just spoke about being really internal and that when we run out there, to soak it all in, and then after the anthems, switch into game mode, and I think we did that quite well. We took in the moment, and then we were quite clinical in what we wanted to get done on the day.”

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Lifting the famous shield (Photo supplied) & Party time in the sheds (Photo – Behind the Ruck)

And finally, after all you’ve been through, what was it like lifting that famous old shield and being able to say you’re a Premiership winner?

BW: “It’s pretty amazing. For me personally, it’s been a rough two years, and to get back to playing consistent footy and win a Shute Shield is quite remarkable. It’s a bloody unreal feeling – words can’t really describe it. But it’s something I can take confidence from and use to keep pushing forward.”

MS: “I’d rather have played the last two years but to come back and prove that I can still play has been great. Rugby-wise, when you get injured, the handbrake goes on, so it’s just been great to let that go again. It’s been an awesome season, and to win the Shute Shield like that was the perfect finish. It’s bloody awesome!”

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After all they have been forced to endure in their short careers thus far, I think we can all agree that these two talented, driven and determined young men deserve all the success and opportunities that hopefully come their way in the near future. Next stop is the NRC with the Sydney Rays (Sandell) and NSW Country Eagles (Wilkin) respectively. Best wishes fellas.

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