Rapidly rising two years ago, Mitchell Graham's rugby career now clings to life support. He speaks to Christopher Reive about the injury that changed everything.
This wasn't how it was meant to be.
Heading into the prime of his career, Mitchell Graham had set his sights on competing for a spot at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Instead, his days of playing top-level rugby may be over.
The 27-year-old suffered a gruesome leg injury playing for the Chiefs in the 2017 Brisbane Tens, fracturing the tibia and fibula in his left leg. The injury was only expected to keep him on the sidelines for six months, but when he returned he knew there was something not quite right.
"I played through a fair bit of pain and it wasn't 100 per cent right," Graham tells the Herald.
He made the decision to focus on a full recovery, but 15 months on, Graham is no closer to a return.
Missing Taranaki's past two Mitre 10 Cup campaigns and this year's Chiefs Super Rugby season, Graham has been working with specialists in the hope of getting back to his best. But after several treatments, one major problem stands in his way.
The specialists can't seem to hone in on what the actual issue is.
"They're trying to fix it the best way, but they don't really know how to fix it," Graham says.
The prop has undergone multiple surgeries, acupuncture and nerve treatments to no avail, with the next option being the use of bisphosphonates – which are used to treat osteoporosis.
With plenty of years left to forge a quality career, Graham is hopeful of making a return. However, he knows that it might not happen.
"With us trying different things and no one really sure of how to fix what I'm doing, there's definitely a part of me that's accepted the fact that I may not play again, I just sure as hell hope I do.
"It's always the plan to come back. The original plan was to play in the World Cup next year so that's still on the cards as long as I can get my leg working."
While he's able to go through gym workouts and cycle, row and scrummage with little to no problems, Graham is still unable to run. He still trains at the Chiefs facilities most days, but as a result of the ongoing issues he lost his place in the squad for the 2019 season – a decision he wasn't happy about, but one he knew was coming.
"They're running a business and at the moment I'm not a very good investment," he admits.
"It is a bit frustrating. It's not nearly as enjoyable when you're not playing. The reason you train every day is to be on the field so spending however many months it's been for me can get a bit frustrating and a bit tiresome."
With the Chiefs front row stocks heavily depleted by injuries last season, Graham and his teammates were able to reach out and support each other through their recovery. But while Atu Moli (leg), Nepo Laulala (arm), Aidan Ross (leg), Kane Hames (concussion) and Sosefo Kautai (foot) are expected to play some sort of role for the Chiefs next season, Graham will continue to watch from a distance.
"We banded together a little bit, a few of us boys. It's not an easy time especially with the big injuries.
"It's a pretty tight-knit group there and we all look out for each other and try to make sure people can get themselves through it the best way they can. Once you get through it you can start thinking about playing rugby again.
"I've had a pretty tough year this year going through it all, but once I can run I can learn to play rugby again – it's been a while since I've done that. But I've got to be able to learn to run then learn to play rugby and see what happens from there. It's definitely part of the plan, but we've got to wait and see."