THERE are few characters in Scottish professional rugby as naturally upbeat and outgoing as Allan Dell, so for the 26-year-old South Africa-born prop to admit that he came close to quitting the game just a few months after being a surprise call-up to the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017 is a startling indication of just how tough it got for him during a tortuous, injury-ravaged year.
Just as his career looked set to click into overdrive, a seemingly innocuous back injury developed into something far more serious and was then compounded by a separate – but probably related – groin problem, which ultimately led to Dell going under the surgeon’s knife twice in ten days and suffering several months of debilitating pain.
“I got back from [the 2017 Lions tour to] New Zealand, got off the plane and felt I had a tight back from lying on the beds the whole time,” he recollects. “I went to the physio, but it wasn’t going away. For three, four weeks it got progressively worse.
“That’s when I went in for a scan and they found two bulging discs. Most professional sportsmen will have bulged discs, but I was unfortunate, it was sitting on a nerve, shooting down to the foot. We managed it, not going down the operation route, [because] you want that to be the last resort.
“We went for an injection and I could start running again. I was trying to play but it wasn’t right, still very painful. I played Zebre and London Irish [in early October 2017], then the following week we were to play Krasny Yar. In training I went for a sprint and felt a sharp pain in the groin. It was probably tied in with the back, glutes and hamstring – it was putting a lot of pressure on. So, I had a groin operation and back operation in the space of ten days.
“I would have tried to push on like a wounded wildebeest, but the groin tear allowed us to fix the back too.”
The long road back
The source of the problem may have been dealt with but the journey back to feeling himself – let alone feeling match fit – had only just begun.
“Frustration is definitely one of the words you’d use,” he says, with unintentional understatement. “I thought about quitting rugby at one stage, especially with the back and groin [injured] at the same time. I was in a place where I was thinking: ‘Am I going to carry on with rugby?’.
“With the way the body was feeling and the things I couldn’t do that I’d taken for granted – just getting out of bed, putting my socks on – when you have pain like that you start thinking about your future, it’s not something you want to live with. I’m just happy and grateful that I’m out of that.”
Dell is now fit again and likely to start Saturday’s match against Wales in the number one jersey, with Alex Allan providing cover from the bench.
“Family support and just remembering why you play the game,” he replies, when asked what helped him through those tough times. “And, also, that I’d have to go back and work on the [family] farm – get up at 5am and get home at 8pm covered in dust and cow excrement – you don’t really want that!
“I was 25, 26 and you think you could have another ten years of a career, or [alternatively] one day you might end up thinking: ‘What if?’. And you would miss something you’ve known your whole life – you’re not going to give that up easily.
“You have a soft moment when your brain starts playing tricks on you, but you get over it. I got the help I needed.
The turning point for Dell was around the start of April, when he finally felt able to start sprinting again “without too much pain”. A few weeks later, he made his long-awaited comeback against the Scarlets in the penultimate game of the regular PRO14 season.
“There is just one point where you feel the body getting over that little hill,” he says. “There are ups and downsm but you hit a point where you think: ‘I’m really enjoying my rugby again’. The sun started showing itself a little more, that might have had something to do with it!”
Still a work in progress
Dell toured with Scotland during the summer, starting against Canada and Argentina, and coming off the bench for Jamie Bhatti against the USA. And while he has had to battle with summer signing Pierre Schoeman for game time at Edinburgh at the start of this season, that challenge can only be a driving force to help him in his quest to get his game back to where he wants it to be.
“I have definitely changed the way I play a lot,” he says. “I’m not as free around the park. I have tried to adapt my game because I’m maybe not as explosive as I used to be.
“I am trying to get my speed and agility back up there. I’ve put a big emphasis on my set-piece. I’ve just gone back to a safer, set-piece oriented kind of style, trying to do my job around the park and make my tackles. Whereas, previously, I maybe wanted to just get the scrum over and done with and get the ball in hand and play. It’s difficult, but I’m trying to find a balance between the two.
“Hopefully as my body keeps improving I can get my hands on the ball a bit more and play some good rugby.”
There is a perception that Dell is too small to play prop at international level, with the torrid afternoons he endured against Tadhg Furlong of Ireland and Uini Atonio of France in his first two Six Nations outings back in the Spring of 2017 hard to forget, but he dismisses the notion on the basis that he can make up with attitude and technique what he is missing in bulk.
“I’ve focused on that a lot and a lot of the coaches I’ve had have helped me with that side of things,” he explains. “It’s about finding a way that I can scrum because I’m not the biggest guy physically, I can’t just rely on my weight, I always have to be switched on. If I make a mistake, I don’t have the size to just rely on my bulk.”
It is great to have the player, and the individual, back. He plays in a position where Scotland are desperately in need of some consistency and depth. But he is still just a baby by international standards having played just 13 Test matches, with eight starts and only one Six Nations campaign, so we shouldn’t expect too much, too soon.
The mind is most definitely willing, and on Saturday we will get a better idea of how close the body is to delivering.