Leeming relishes return to rugby’s ‘crash and bash’

JERSEY REDS fly-half Sam Leeming has stated he is ‘making up for lost time’ after battling back from cancer.

Sam Leeming of Jersey scores the conversion to make the score 17-26 during the Championship match between Richmond Rugby and Jersey Reds at Richmond Athletic Ground, Richmond, UK on 30 October 2021. Photo by Ken Sparks..Editorial use only, license required for commercial use. No use in betting, games or a single club/league/player publications.. (32084042)
Sam Leeming of Jersey scores the conversion to make the score 17-26 during the Championship match between Richmond Rugby and Jersey Reds at Richmond Athletic Ground, Richmond, UK on 30 October 2021. Photo by Ken Sparks..Editorial use only, license required for commercial use. No use in betting, games or a single club/league/player publications.. (32084042)

The 24-year-old believes the pause from the weekly ‘crash-and-bash’ of rugby, and his time out of the game, has made him both mentally stronger and physically refreshed.

Meanwhile, he has opened up on how both himself and the whole of the Championship side have taken inspiration from the likes of Exeter Chiefs coach Rob Baxter’s words about ‘not taking their wins for granted’ and having a togetherness after back-to-back victories over Richmond and Hartpury.

He said: ‘With Jersey, there is huge emphasis on a togetherness and, as a team, it doesn’t matter which 23 are playing, everyone can do a job and that’s because we’re all mucking in together. Everyone knows their role and if you’re not in the 23, you’re prepping boys or helping me with the kicking. It’s a huge togetherness effort.

‘We take inspiration from Exeter. Like them, we’ve had some reality checks this season and it’s a similar story for them in the Premiership and us in the Championship.

‘Going to Richmond and Hartpury here, we’ve done well and it’s really pleasing to nail some of our stuff and improve on each week’s performance. That is key.

‘We have to prove that we’ve had a reaction and, yes, it’s not perfect but we’ll always be demanding more and I’ll always be demanding more because that’s how we constantly improve and get better.

‘With some of the teams towards the top of the table in previous years, it might be a different result so we have to be on it, constantly getting better and that’s a huge focus for us.’

Leeming joined Reds in May 2020 but didn’t make his competitive debut until the side’s home draw with Ampthill last month. He has now made three appearances in a row.

As a result of the initial Covid lockdown last year and then his diagnosis with – and recovery from – non-hodgkins lymphoma, he went 20 months without any competitive rugby.

It was during pre-season training last year, just a fortnight after signing from Bedford Blues, that he was diagnosed after ‘feeling unfit’ and knowing something was not right.

He was suffering from a puffy face and light-headedness. At one point, his heart rate was 197 beats per minute in a warm-up activity. This is a level he should have been hitting in the middle of a very tough workout.

It led the Reds’ medical team to do some tests, after which he was sent to see a doctor and, very soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with a tumour that was 16 centimetres across his chest. ‘It was like having a brick in my chest, so no wonder I was throwing up after trying to run,’ he reflected.

He went to the UK for treatment and admitted that he ‘found the word cancer is such a heavy word. I couldn’t say it for the first month but it has made me realise how incredibly lucky I am’.

‘It might sound like a cliché but I genuinely feel everything happens for a reason so the year out, even though my body was getting peppered with other stuff, was a break from rugby and the crash-and-bash week in, week out,’ he explained.

‘Mentally, it was a chance for me to refresh and it helped that the season was delayed by Covid so I wasn’t missing so much.

‘To get back into it, I’ve been involved on and off the field since August to get back into the mindset of the 10 and sleaze.

‘I’m aiming to build performances in the Championship, as that’s what I need to do, and I’m relishing that. I believe everything happens for a reason and now we’ve got to enjoy these wins, as any win in the Championship is tough. Again, it’s stepping stones early in the season but we’ve got a lot to improve on so I’m loving being out there again.’

Reds chief Harvey Biljon has been open and honest in recent weeks about giving Leeming space and time to get back up to speed, stating that ‘Sam’s rusty and not the finished article [but] having a recognised 10 is making a big difference and we believe Sam will get better every week’.

Leeming added: ‘In a roundabout way, I’m 24 but I also had a short season at Bedford before Jersey due to a few head knocks so I feel like my rugby age is 21.

‘With that mindset, and playing with the freedom that Harvey instils from up top, and the confidence from the coaches backing us, I feel really confident.

‘The shoulders are feeling it after the first few 80 minutes but, for sure, that constant week in, week out of a rugby player is brutal and, in the Championship, the physicality is there or thereabouts on a similar level to the Premiership so it’s a huge effort and I’m just grateful that my body is able to be there or thereabouts in terms of my physical performance.

‘Now it’s just getting better week on week, my fitness will only get better now. It’s still not there but I was extremely fit before so I’ve got high standards to get back to and comparing myself to so I’m getting there.’

Darlington-born Leeming has always been a self-proclaimed ‘rugby-mad’ individual but his cancer recovery, which included having to spend a lot of time in self-isolation in hospital away from his family and girlfriend owing to Covid, meant he developed other aspects of his life.

The former pupil of Barnard Castle School was part of the Newcastle Falcons Academy during his late teens before moving to Hartpury and then spending time in Australia in 2018 playing for Sydney club side Gordon. He had a season with Reds’ rivals Bedford Blues before coming to the Island.

Leeming said: ‘I definitely feel like I’ve mentally grown up and got stronger. I’m much more than rugby and during that time I had to find other things I enjoyed that were not on the pitch and I’m grateful that I went through that.

‘You hear some players say that if they’re happier and fulfilled off the pitch, then they’re a better player on the pitch because they’re approaching rugby and training with a fresher mind, and a more positive and engaged mindset.

‘To not have the pressures, the enjoyment, the highs and lows which come with playing in recent weeks, I didn’t have that. It felt like there was a huge void and I had to learn to fill that with other stuff.

‘Other people go through injuries and life stuff, and you do focus on other things outside rugby and that is important. The Richmond boys we played work and still perform on a Saturday, even though they’re not in a full-time rugby environment like we are. That just shows they’re busy doing other careers but can still get results against any Championship team on a Saturday.

‘I look back on it in a weird way as a positive time because, even though I was hospitalised and couldn’t do the physical stuff I love, it now feels like I had an extended sabbatical and I did my best to get a lot out of it and my time.’

During his lay-off, Leeming did a sports performance and psychology degree with Hartpury College as well as helping his brother with various fundraising events, ‘and I read more books in six months than I had in my whole life, in the hope that and the academic stuff would potentially help me one day after rugby as you never know what life will throw at you and when it’ll be the last time you run onto a rugby pitch’.

Currently Jersey Reds sit third in the table with 23 points from six games, level of points with Cornish Pirates and three off league leaders Ealing Trailfinders who they play next weekend.

Leeming has got 15 points from the boot in the last three games, with his playmaking ability key as Reds recovered from a loss at ,Doncaster and a disappointing draw to Ampthill before back-to-back wins.

On the upsurge in form he said: ‘It’s been a big reaction from Ampthill where we felt we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties and giving the ball away with unforced errors. We had a big kick up the arse and we’ve now started games really well, being dominant. We’ve also been working on our defensive reads and being critical, not dipping in the second half.

‘There’s massive confidence in the group doing the job. The win against Richmond was a massive one, my first away trip travelling and considering how Richmond have been going.

‘Our line-outs and line breaks have been going really well. We’ve put the right foundations in place and shown how we can put pressure on other teams and get results.

‘With everyone from Jersey travelling to games and the set-up we have, we do feel like we have a bit of a target on our head and I personally love that, as I have huge confidence in the team and it’ll be another big test against Ealing next week which will be huge.

‘I’m only a cog in the team and will always do my job as best as I can. It has always been a team thing. Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to be picked, do my job to the best of my ability then, if the team goes better, we’re in a really good spot.

‘I’m feeling good. I’ve been lucky to have three 80 minutes back to back which is the first time it’s happened in 20 months so I feel good. Obviously, I’ve been training and have been back in training since the Leicester game in August. That was really good because I got up to speed with things.

‘After losing nearly a year of rugby, the more I play, the better I’ll get. We’re all doing our individual roles and I think, looking to Ealing, that we’ve taken some big stepping stones in where we want to go and where we want to be.’

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