Jack Willis on rugby tackling mental health, injury torment, social media regulation and his Wasps and England career

Wasps and England back-row Jack Willis, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, discusses his injury torment, the effects of social media and being an ambassador for charity Brave Mind.

Injuries, dips in form, selection omissions, contractual stresses, retirement – professional athletes are not, and never have been, immune to mental health struggles.

Indeed, 25 per cent of those playing rugby in the UK and Ireland experience “poor mental health”, according to Brave Mind – a charity set-up in recent months to tackle the stigma of mental health head on in a sport monopolised by masculinity, bravado and physical altercation.

Jack Willis, the Premiership’s reigning Player of the Season, is out of action with a serious knee injury, but became a Brave Mind ambassador almost from its inception, such is his strength of feeling towards mental health in rugby and the necessity for change.

“When the guys at Brave Mind reached out to me, it touched home what a great job they were doing and how important it is,” Willis says, taking time out of his busy rehab schedule to speak over Zoom in Mental Health Awareness Week.

“I’ve come across a lot of players that retrospectively I’ve heard about how much they’ve struggled, when every single day, right in front of me, they were smiling and seemed to be really happy guys with no problems.

“All of a sudden you hear these stories, and you think you’ve been a great mate to them over the last few months, when actually you didn’t really know what was going on in their head.

“It just highlighted the need for me to really educate myself on cues and things to pick up on, so that I can be as good a friend, colleague and teammate as possible.

“It’s massive to talk about it, and to tackle it. I’ve had my fair share of injuries and been in the physio room with a lot of lads who are pretty down, and I’ve been down myself at times. The thing that has helped me through it is leaning on and talking to people around me.

“When you bottle these issues up and think: ‘I’ll just keep it to myself, I won’t burden anyone’, is actually when it starts to really mount up and become a bigger issue.

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“There’s been a big development in recent months, and I think month on month, it’s becoming bigger.

“But there does need to be a shift, and it needs to be quite a monumental shift in order to stop some of the issues going on at the moment.

“The trouble with it is that it’s not a case of saying: ‘We can sort this out in a year’s time, or two years’ time,’ because during that time people are being scarred for life, and making decisions they can’t take back.

“It’s something we really need to action now, and there is no time to wait on it, because mental health can be a big struggle for so many. Being able to put the foundations in place as soon as possible to correct that in sport is definitely necessary.”

‘It all came crashing down in minutes’

Earlier this year, things could hardly have been going better for Willis.

Still just 24, he was off the back of a league campaign in which he scored nine tries – just two less than the highest – and conjured a remarkable 46 turnovers – some 27 more than the next most: London Irish’s Blair Cowan (19) – firing Wasps to the Premiership final, where they fell to a tight 19-13 loss to European champions Exeter.

He had finally made his England Test debut in November, starting against Georgia and scoring a try, before featuring off the bench in victory over Wales a fortnight on in Llanelli.

In May of 2018, Willis had suffered a serious ACL knee injury for Wasps in a semi-final vs Saracens, but his recovery had been sensational, with his flexibility and bravery to jackal over the ball at the breakdown enormous.

During the 2021 Six Nations, Willis missed out against Scotland but was among the replacements when Italy visited Twickenham. Emerging onto the pitch just shy of the hour mark, Willis slotted in on the blindside of a scrum and within moments was diving over for a try – audibly bellowing with exhilaration and joy before being bear-hugged and dragged off the ground by Ellis Genge.

Just three minutes later, Willis had locked onto a ball at a breakdown just outside the England 22, as he has done countless times before, seeking a turnover. But this time, disaster would strike. Italy forward Sebastian Negri landed on the side of Willis’ left leg, forcing it to fall inwards, and his knee to suffer catastrophic damage.

“It’s a bit of a rollercoaster really,” he says.

“You go out there and you’re achieving so many dreams, ever since you were a little kid you’ve looked towards these things.

“Playing in a Premiership final, playing in a final alongside your brother, playing for your country and making your debut, scoring for your country; it’s things you could only ever dream of.

“And then it really did feel like it all came crashing down in the space of five minutes in that Italy game.

“I came on, managed to score a try, and a couple of minutes after I was going off on a stretcher.

“I think that’s why sport is so incredible. You have these moments that can’t be replicated in any other walk of life, but then equally you can have the lowest of lows within seconds. It’s pretty crazy.”

One of the features of Tests at the highest level being played behind closed doors due to Covid is that communication between and from the players is far more discernible than it ever has been.

The consequence on that February afternoon was that Willis’ anguished yelps were clear to hear for those who love him, causing huge distress.

“I know from speaking to my mum, that she went straight out of the room crying. She knew exactly that it was going to be very serious.

“My dad was trying to console her as you can imagine, and my girlfriend was just a bit stunned and more thinking: ‘How has this happened again?’

“All of us knew it was serious. I’d like to think I don’t moan about things or scream out loud unless it hurts quite a bit. So they knew I was in pain.

“It’s more frustrating in that you hope in a career as a rugby player you only come across one nasty injury, and I felt like I’d done my time a couple of years ago with my knee and ankle, and then having this again has been a bit of a kick in the teeth.”

Whereas Willis tore the ACL in his right knee over two-and-a-half years previously, his ACL remained intact within his left knee three months ago, though everything else within the structure did not escape damage.

Unlike with a lot of complex knee injuries, Willis was able to have everything rectified in one surgery, which occurred 10 days post-injury at the Cromwell in Kensington, placing his recovery timeframe in and around a likely 12-month period.

“I was quite fortunate not to do my ACL, as that would have added on more of a longer timeframe and restricted me in the early phases, but I did my PCL a lot worse than we thought originally – which in effect does the opposite to what an ACL does – and that has almost caused just as much hassle unfortunately.

“I did my medial meniscus, lateral meniscus and my MCL as well. The MCL was torn off the bone and I had to have that attached with a couple of synthetic ligaments, so there’s a bit of artwork going into it.

“I was in with Andy Williams, who is an incredible surgeon and did my knee last time as well, and he fills you with confidence going in, which is needed as you’re in a pretty tough spot at the time and you don’t know what’s next. The unknown is the scary part.

“He set me on the right track and onto the long, long road of rehab.

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“I’ve been through the physio room a few times, but with this one I’ve really tried to make sure I’ve got other things going on in my life than just focusing on the fact I’m missing out on rugby.

“In the past, when I suffered a serious knee injury, one thing I really struggled with was a lack of identity. As soon as I had my injury, I wasn’t a rugby player anymore.

“Actually, it’s quite nice to have other focusses and passions because then you don’t lose as much of a sense of identity, and can appreciate everything else you’ve got and not just think about what you’re missing out on.”

‘It’s incredible to think someone could actually type that out’

Another aspect pertinent to mental health now perhaps more than ever, is social media and its flagrant mis-use to abuse and denigrate.

Off the back of a social media blackout by clubs, unions and organisations between Friday, April 30 and Tuesday, May 4, Willis has added his name to the growing list of sportspeople calling for stringent regulation.

“It’s crucial. It really is a minefield at the moment. It’s actually scary.

“You see some of the hate, especially to some of the high-profile footballers, and it’s just incredible to think how someone could actually type that out.

“I’ve always felt quite fortunate in not receiving too much online hate, but some of my teammates have had stick from all over the place.

“It’s not only the player that reads it, it’s his mum, his dad, his brother or sister, his grandparents. Sometimes people become so detached, they don’t actually see the athlete as a person.

“Hopefully the blackout has made an impact and shown the importance of what needs to be done.

“Moving forward, there needs to be more accountability to your personal social media account. And whether that’s a form of identification or what, people are hiding behind screens at the moment and know nothing will come back to them because they can just delete this account and what they say will never get tied to them.

“Where actually, if someone could come to their door and put a fine in place, or I’m not sure what the punishment should be – it depends on the severity of what’s been said I guess – but being held accountable would make a big difference.

“They would never in a million years go up to a player and say it to their face. But that blanket between them and the player allows them to type away and not feel any consequences.

“For them, there isn’t at the moment, but for those players, there are pretty severe consequences sometimes.”

During this Covid-19 pandemic and the several lockdowns that have been enforced and lifted in tandem, rugby players have experienced a sporting calendar unique in history.

For Willis, what has the last 14 months been like mentally, both while fit to play when sport returned, and now while injured?

“I’ve tried to motivate myself in different ways.

“I was probably prepared for the lockdown with my injuries previously, knowing that when rugby isn’t there for me on a day-to-day basis, I have to find my own routine.

“As a rugby player, you wake up and you’re told what to wear, what to eat, where to be, what sessions you’re doing, and actually, sometimes when you have to sit back and think of a bit of a structure to your day, it can throw you off quite a bit.

“It was something I set out to do quite early, putting a training structure in place, and in-between I was trying to better myself in other areas, whether business or education, which was a good way of keeping me sane.

“Otherwise, if you sat around just watching tele all day, you can make yourself pretty miserable.

“I feel like I’ve got off to a really positive start [with the recovery], which is great.

“I’ve been front-squatting over the last week, and starting to put a bit more weight on it – nothing impressive! – but I feel like it’s starting to get there and the swelling is not as much as it was.

“So I’m chugging along quite nicely now.”

Having battled back from serious injury to take Premiership Rugby by storm before, there is no reason to doubt that Willis – a man palpably wise beyond his years – will do so with aplomb again.


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