"I've Learned A Lot About Myself" - Jack van Poortvliet: World Cup Injury Heartbreak and His Tough Road to England Camp Return - Ruck

“I’ve Learned A Lot About Myself” – Jack van Poortvliet: World Cup Injury Heartbreak and His Tough Road to England Camp Return

10 months ago, Jack van Poortvliet’s dreams of representing England at the Rugby World Cup were shattered into smithereens. Re-wind back to the Summer of 2023, and JVP was the preferred starting scrum half, as England underwent a series of warm-up fixtures ahead of their trip to France.

On August 12th, England hosted Wales at Twickenham, after Steve Borthwick had trimmed the edges off his squad as preparations were being finalised for the upcoming Rugby World Cup. Borthwick named van Poortvliet to start in England’s second exhibition match of the Summer, with the head coach laying out what on paper looked like his strongest possible squad.

Jack van Poortvliet of England on the break during the Six Nations Match between England and Italy at Twickenham, London on 12 Feb 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

However, after just 31 minutes of action against Warren Gatland’s side, van Poortvliet was withdrawn from the game. The 23-year-old required an opperation on his injured ankle, which wrote him out of contention for the tournament in France. 291 days later, van Poortvliet walked into an England rugby media session, with his open sandals baring the surgical scar, which had side-lined him for a heart-wrenching stint.

Fresh from a gruelling fitness session at England’s Pennyhill Park training camp, van Poortvliet met with the reporting England media for the first time since his devastating injury. The halfback gave impassioned insight, on how he left Pennyhill Park in floods of tears following his initial injury. Van Poortvliet’s mother drove down to collect her son from the England camp last Summer, in what was one of the toughest days in the young scrum-half’s career.

Jack van Poortvliet of England looks dejected as he is substituted with an injury during the Summer Nations Series Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 12 Aug 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“Yeah, it was tough. No, it was really tough. I was lucky I have a really good support network. Good family, good people, the club, good mates helped me sort of get through it. It’s quite funny when I first came in here, it’s weird walking back to Pennyhill, because when I left I was with my mum was picking me up, and I was leaving crying my eyes out. 

“So, It’s been a year, but I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s been challenging. Definitely, I think the start of it was tough, missing the World Cup. But then I think then the re-injury of my hamstring, just before the Six Nations again, when you set a target on trying to get back for that. It’s just another blow. So they were probably the two toughest bits. 

Jack van Poortvliet of England during the Summer Nations Series Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 12 Aug 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“But you learn a lot about yourself and you sort of do have a bigger picture realisation about what really matters. Then you crack on once you get your head down, and you set yourself a lot of targets and it soon goes quite quick. But it was definitely tough in periods, but I feel I’m pretty well rounded person after going through it.”

Van Poortvliet is now back in the England camp, with the goal of taking on Japan and the All Blacks in the upcoming Summer series. However, it has been a turbulent road for the scrum half to get back to Bagshot, which began by van Poortvliet watching on as England took home bronze medals from the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Jack Van Poortvliet of England during the England World Cup Squad Announcement at Twickenham Stadium, London on Monday 7th August 2023 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

Despite admitting that the games were often quite difficult to watch, van Poortvliet only wanted the best for his teammates out in France. After watching the first three pool fixtures from the comfort of home, van Poortvliet jetted out to Lille for England’s final group match against Samoa. In what doubled up as a social occasion with some hometown friends, van Poortvliet explained how he was able to meet up with his England teammates after their bruising encounter with the Pacific Islanders.

“Watching the games wasn’t easy because there was always this thought in the back of your mind that if this hadn’t happened then it could have been me. I wanted the boys to do well, I really wanted them to do well because you almost feel like you played a small part in it. I managed to get out to one game. It was hard watching it,” but it was also a realisation that stuff happens that you can’t control and you have to get on with it.

“It also gave me motivation, with the boys doing well. That spurred me on because in the back of your mind you want to get back there. You do the work day by day, week by week but you want to get back playing with those boys.”

Jack Van Poortvliet of England during the England Rugby Training Sessions at The Lensbury Hotel, Teddington, London on 8 August 2023 (Photo: George Beck/PPAUK)

“I went out to the Samoa game. A few of my mates who are also Freddie’s [Steward] mates had an Airbnb for a few days, had a spare room and invited me down. I said ‘I’d love to go’. Steve [Borthwick] managed to sort me tickets and said ‘come in the changing room afterwards’, so I got to see everyone and went back to the team hotel, had a catch up.

“It was a good day, I definitely enjoyed myself out there… Steve gave me a bit of stick for how I was when I was watching the game, I was definitely quite loud in front of the coaches box which I didn’t realise. It was good fun, nice to reconnect with the squad and see them all doing well.”

In what could be described as the ‘Borthwick butterfly effect’, van Poortvliet’s absence from the Rugby World Cup squad opened the door for Alex Mitchell to head to France. However, Mitchell did far more than just make up the numbers within the scrum half pecking order, as he in fact super-seeded veteran nines Ben Youngs and Danny Care to the starting shirt, and has been Borthwick’s go to scrum half ever since.

Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints) of England and Jack van Poortvliet (Leicester Tigers) during the England Rugby Training camp at the Honda England Rugby Performance Centre, Pennyhill Park on 25 Jan. 2023 Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Van Poortvliet only had praise for Mitchell, who he believes will bring the best out of him as he looks to regain the starting nine shirt. The Leicester and Northampton scrum halves are East Midlands rivals at club level, but there is certainly a mutual respect and friendship between them when the training sessions step up to the international stage. Speaking on how well Mitchell progressed in his England absence, van Poortvliet said:

“Alex has done brilliantly since he came in. Test matches are changing to almost being played at a higher speed than it has been before. That is something Mitch has done really well. Coming in here, that is something Steve is driving me the speed and the ball away from the ruck. They are pushing that hard. It is having the balance and doing it at the right times.

Alex Mitchell of England during the Six Nations Match between England and Wales at Twickenham, London on 10 February 2024 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“That is something ‘Mitch’ has done really well. That is something Steve wants from the nines, the ability to play fast but the understanding of when to take control and be in the right areas. There is definitely a big drive for speed in the minute and keep the attack firing as we saw in the Six Nations.”

Whilst van Poortvliet watched England and Leicester from the stands, he kept in close contact with his club and country mentor Ben Youngs. Known as ‘Lenny’ to his friends, Youngs would send JVP frequent messages and check in on the scrum half, during his extended time out on the injury list.

“Lenny has been brilliant, someone who has always been a help for me coming through at Leicester, a Norfolk boy. We have always been pretty close. When he was away at the Rugby World Cup he was messaging me when out there, just checking in.

Ben Youngs of Leicester Tigers with the ball during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on 3 December 2023. Photo: Patrick Khachfe/PPAUK

“Since being back and playing he has helped out in training in bits, pushing what he sees in the game, helping me review. He’s been brilliant and it’s testament to his character and who he is, to keep helping and push me to get back here and help the club do well. He’s been brilliant and helped me out a lot.”

After the Rugby World Cup, Ben Youngs ended his England career as the country’s all time most capped men’s player. Danny Care would follow suit after the 2024 Six Nations, and would retire from the international stage as a test match centurion in his own right. With both Youngs and Care out of the fold after such a long stronghold over the England nine shirt, van Poortvliet recognises how England have entered into a new era for the scrum halves, with plenty of competition expected from the get go.

“I think Ben and Danny had the shirt for so long because they were so consistent for so long. For me, it won’t help looking at that as an opportunity to have the shirt for a long time. It’s working hard while I’m here and back in to push as hard as I can, having healthy competition with the likes of Mitch, (Alex Mitchell) Rands (Harry Randall) and (Ben) Spencer, to push each other and make each other better will only help the team.

England A player Harry Randall (Bristol Bears) attacking during the International rugby match between England A and Portugal at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on February 25th- PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“My focus is to keep improving, I haven’t played loads of rugby this year so to take advantage of this opportunity I have and see how far I can push it, and that will set me up for next season and I’ll go again from there. But thinking long-term, it won’t help me to think I could be in this position for a while. At the moment I just want to focus on getting back involved in the squad and trying to help the team.”

Initially, van Poortvliet’s goal after suffering the ankle injury was to return at the 2024 Guinness Six Nations. However, an unfortunate hamstring tear curtailed his hopes of running out in the most recent championship. Ever vigilant in adapting to adverse situations, van Poortvliet altered his scope for an England return this Summer, and he is looking on track to achieve this goal.

“I think I’ve learned to probably be more patient in certain things, especially as that was my first ever big injury. So I was so keen when I was injured to be like ‘next thing, next thing, next thing.’ But injuries are long, they’re complicated sometimes. 

Jack van Poortvliet of Leicester Tigers kicks the bal during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Leicester Tigers and Bristol Bears at Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium, Leicester on 27 April 2024. Photo: James Whitehead/PPAUK

“I’m not a very patient person, but I think I’ve learned to be a bit more patient, a bit. I’ve also learned a lot about my body. And such, I think recovery and not prepping yourself or prepping your body and things. I mean, obviously, I’m young, I think, but as in when you’re young, you can get away with it. You don’t have to do as much prep, as much rehab and things like that, to prepare yourself to perform as well as you can.

“Because you’re lucky your body recovers quite quick. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself and my body and how I’ve got to manage it and look after it, it’s almost in theory sort of made me more professional because I’ve got to look after myself. So, I’ve learned a lot about preparation and recovery and it helped me perform better on the pitch because of it.”

Now that he is back in the England camp, van Poortvliet has enjoyed reuniting with his teammates and getting to know a whole crop of new players. The scrum half admitted to feeling ‘fresh faced’, as he mingled with the seven uncapped players who have been called up for the England training squad, and expressed how well they have settled in to their new surroundings.

Jack van Poortvliet (Leicester Tigers) during the Premiership Rugby Content Capture Day at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on September 27th 2023. – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“They’ve settled in brilliantly. There are a few there I know quite well from playing (England) U20s and who I have played with before. Someone like Gabe (Oghre), Charlie (Atkinson) was at Leicester, Rusi (Tuima) I played with at U20s. It’s good to catch up again and see them again. They have played brilliantly this season and then coming in brings genuine excitement.

“The people I don’t know I’m getting to know. It’s been brilliant. I almost felt like a fresh face because I haven’t been in for a year or so and it does feel different in a good way. They’ve settled in really well and I’m getting to know the boys I don’t know. It’s been really good.”