EXETER Chiefs lock Mitch Lees knows he will have a real fight on his hands to get his place back in the team when he returns from injury in the new season.
The 29-year-old Australian, who has already made 71 Premiership appearances for the Devon club, is slowly recovering from shoulder surgery he underwent at the end of last season.
It is now five weeks since the operation took place, and the new league campaign will have kicked off before he is back in action.
“The time frame is two to three months until I am back, and looking at the fixtures, I am hoping to be back inside that first month,” he told the Indy. “I will push myself to do that, but obviously the team will be well established by then, so it will be all about fighting to get back into the side, which is probably the hunger you need as a player to make yourself go through rehab, and know that when you come out of it, you are going to be up for a fight with other players.
“Jonny (Hill) and Skins (Sam Skinner) really established themselves in the team last year and deservedly got accolades come the end of the season [Hill was called into the England squad for the summer tour to South Africa], so I am hungry to work hard and get myself into a position to be strong and fit, something I probably lacked a little last season after picking up my shoulder problem, so I am excited at the prospect of getting back.”
Lees did very well to get through the season and feature in the Premiership final against Saracens after picking up the injury only a couple of months into the campaign.
“It happened in our first European fixture, and it took a lot of numbing injections to help me play in the following weeks and make it bearable,” he revealed. “But the constant collisions and deterioration in my shoulder just got a bit too much, and it was decided well before the final that I would have the surgery, but of course I pushed myself to play in that final and delayed the operation until after that, which luckily enough, Rob (Baxter) and the other coaches agreed upon – and even gave me a little bit of time off in there, which was nice – knowing that I will come back now and work my backside off to get into a position to be firing into the season and help the squad push on.”
Lees is one of around seven players who are currently going through the rehab process after injuries, and he said: “It is a good group and it is always nice to bounce off each other because there are going to be tough days, physically, or emotionally where you are struggling, and to be able to bounce off someone who can lift you up and tell you to keep going is great.
“That is what pre-season at Chiefs is all about, you look out for each other, you look to build that camaraderie, and push each other, and you are lucky enough to have that in rehab and it really helps you keep going.”
Lees says the Chiefs will be keen to put into place the lessons learnt when they lost the Premiership final to Saracens two years ago, and then started the following campaign badly, though admittedly, they did go on and lift the title at the end of that season.
“We had a dip in our performances in the Premiership when we came back, and it is a big focus for us not to let that happen again,” he explained. “We are a very good side and we know we can perform well, and those dips shouldn’t be a part of our game.
“Even though we lost the final, we were top of the Premiership at the end of the regular season, so we know what we do works, we can score tries, we know we can play good rugby which is entertaining, and it is all just about backing that up, and having the self-belief that we can go out there and do it all again.”
The Chiefs have only added one new senior signing, with Wales international winger Alex Cuthbert arriving from Cardiff Blues, while 14 players have moved up from the Academy.
But they have lost a few old heads and characters from the dressing room, with the likes of Kai Horstmann, Julian Salvi and Lachie Turner retiring, Thomas Waldrom off back to New Zealand, and Will Chudley and Shaun Malton joining Bath and Bristol Bears respectively.
“It shows the depth in our squad that we have lost a few players through retirement or moving away, but we still have a very good core group of players, and a very good depth to our squad,” said Lees. “It means a lot of players are going to get more game time, and they should be hungry for that and excited about that opportunity. One or two characters have moved on, but there’s always going to be another character at the Chiefs. The good thing about our dressing room is there is never a dull moment.
“There is always a laugh, no matter who’s there or not there, and it’s always been a fun place to be.”