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Battle of Wounded Knee...

The cessation of all GAA activity has been both a curse and a blessing for players like Westmeath's Ger Egan and Clare's John Conlon as they rehab dreaded cruciate knee injuries

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Up against it: Ger Egan in action for Westmeath

Up against it: Ger Egan in action for Westmeath

SPORTSFILE

John Conlon of Clare during February's League clash with Kilkenny

John Conlon of Clare during February's League clash with Kilkenny

SPORTSFILE

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Up against it: Ger Egan in action for Westmeath

A tale of two cruciates in a pandemic. In a parallel universe, Westmeath footballers would be in Tullamore this evening, putting on their game faces for the ultimate challenge … a date with the Dubs.

And Ger Egan would hope to have won his 11-month battle of wounded knee; to have made the match-day squad for this early-summer rendezvous of David and Goliath.

Egan is still training away on his own, doing all that he can in these surreal times, but he admits: "If you don't have a target or a goal, it's hard to keep motivated … the whole lockdown came at an odd time for me."

Meanwhile, in a world without Covid, John Conlon already would have written off his sporting ambitions for 2020.

The Clare hurling captain ruptured the ACL in his left knee during a training drill on UL's all-weather pitch on Tuesday, March 10.

The panel's teaching cohort had been chatting during the warm-up about rumours of an imminent school shutdown - Conlon among them.

"There was a weird air around training," he recalls, as players who had committed so much to the early-season grind wondered aloud: "Will this be stopped as well?"

Not long into the session, Conlon's knee buckled; his season was over.

Just two days later, speaking from Washington, Leo Varadkar's sobering words ushered in the inevitable closure of Irish sport.

From a GAA perspective at least, the lockdown remains open-ended - John Horan has made that much abundantly clear. All of which means, strangely, that Conlon might even be fit to lead out the Banner in their next competitive outing.

Whenever that will be.

* * * * *

Egan and Conlon are not unique. More than a handful of fellow long-term knee injury victims are at various pitstops on the road back to fitness - players whose comeback targets, however tentative, have been cast into further uncertainty by Covid-19.

They include Egan's Westmeath teammate, Jamie Gonoud (who tore his ACL against Longford in March 2019); Tipperary hurler Patrick 'Bonner' Maher (stretchered off against Limerick, June 2019); Mayo's Jason Doherty (stricken against Donegal, August 2019); and a trio all injured last February: another Mayo footballer, Colm Boyle (v Dublin), Limerick hurler Richie English (v Galway) and rising Kilkenny star Adrian Mullen (v Clare).

Reconstructive knee surgery entails a minimum six-month lay-off, but usually several months more. Recovery can be a lonely journey, especially before you get back on grass; devotion to the gym, to all those mind-numbing but necessary rehab exercises, becomes a rite of passage.

But what happens when the doors of the gym are locked?

And what happens when you're edging back to fitness only to be robbed of your comeback goal?

* * * * *

Ger Egan was in prolific form right through the spring of 2019, his towering tallies lifting Westmeath to O'Byrne Cup and Division 3 silverware.

But Westmeath's qualifier exit to Clare at the end of June delivered a double-whammy of pain for the Tyrrellspass clubman. He had previously torn the posterior cruciate (PCL) in his right knee and chose to rehab that injury. Now the ACL in his left knee had snapped.

"I've done everything else in my knee and it just felt different. Pain-wise I was actually okay; I got up and walked off the pitch. But I kind of just knew," he recalls.

He was operated on just a week later, by Cathal Moran at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry.

Little did he know, back then, that a global pandemic would interrupt his return-to-play plans.

His initial aim - a late league comeback - was parked after physio advice that he'd be mad to push himself that quickly.

He refocussed on being fit for some if not all of the championship.

The Leinster quarter-final against Dublin, pencilled in for this weekend, was "kind of a target. You know, the whole coronavirus came at a bad stage for me because I was just ready to get back into doing some proper training - non-contact.

"So, that's been taken away from me."

By March 12, when the lockdown came, he was back running long distances and doing some agility work. The next steps would have entailed power and speed, and non-contact multi-directional runs. "I was building up nicely," he says.

And now?

"It's kind of hard. There's nothing like training properly in the right conditions, as in match scenarios. That's how you build the confidence up and the strength up.

"You can always train on your own, but it's not really relevant to match intensity.

"I'm doing everything I can. The gyms are closed down, so that's taken away from me a little bit as well because you really need to be building it the whole time, and just putting as much force through it as possible.

"But, look, you have to do what you have to do. I mean, health and safety come before bloody injuries," he stresses.

"We're very lucky in my club. We've a very good gym there and they gave weights to anyone that needed them. So, I have dumbbells here; I have a barbell.

"I'm doing as much as I can on that. Then I have a mountain bike so I'm just dogging myself on that - to get the hill sessions in."

The advice from his physio, Liam Heavin, has been that it usually takes a year from date of injury before you are ready to play again - just to make sure that the new ligament has fully fused.

"Look, it's given me more time to build it up," says Egan.

"There's no pressure on me to go and get back. Obviously, this is coming at a good time and a bad time … a double-edged sword."

* * * * *

The injury gods have not been kind to John Conlon of late. Back in 2018, the powerhouse target man was in the form of his life.

But then he partially tore the PCL in the right knee during the drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Galway and still played (foolishly, he now admits) in the replay.

He came back the following January only to tear ankle ligaments against Wexford a month later.

In a forerunner to his latest misfortune, Conlon had played against Kilkenny in February when Mullen, the 2019 Young Hurler of the Year, was stretchered off.

What carried the hallmarks of a textbook cruciate was discussed on the bus home from Nowlan Park.

"One or two had it done before and were describing what it felt like," he relates. "They had said that you feel that 'pop' or crunch, and then this massive pain for a minute, and then you think you can get back up and walk away."

So, several weeks later, when Conlon's knee buckled during a one-on-one drill with a defender, he feared the worst. For 30-60 seconds there was "massive pain" - then it eased. "I kind of knew in my own head that it's probably the cruciate gone. And it turned out to be."

To be appointed captain of your county only to then suffer a season-ending injury scarcely qualifies as a good-luck story. And yet, conceivably, it could have been worse.

In these unprecedented times, with private hospitals taken over by the State and countless elective surgeries put on hold, the 2018 All-Star might have been left in a very long queue.

As it transpired, his injury happened just in time.

Two days afterwards, Conlon was in Santry where the diagnosis was confirmed. He then met Ray Moran the following Monday.

"Usually you give it a month of prehab work before you go into the operation, to get the swelling down and to build up the muscle around the knee," he says.

"Then after two weeks they rang me to see would I be interested in doing it on the Saturday. Otherwise it could be three to six months before they could be back doing operations again."

He was booked in for Saturday, March 28. But that Friday night the Taoiseach delivered a keynote speech to announce further Covid-19 restrictions, prompting fears that surgery might be cancelled.

"I was about to cry," he admits.

Thankfully the operation went ahead and, to date, Conlon is eclipsing most of his targets.

But what if there's an All-Ireland hurling championship in October or beyond?

"Reading up the leaflets and talking to different people, you need nine months to recover," he points out.

"The longer you give it the better, they say. If you still have a championship, it would be a seven-month mark for me by the end of October. You just don't know how it's going to react.

"I seem to be well ahead of my targets that I'm supposed to hit. So, who knows?"

Conlon's rehab has been aided by turning his garage into a gym. Between benches, squat bars and dumbbells, and having borrowed back some old equipment previously donated to his club, Clonlara, he has what he needs.

He has gone from squatting 20kg to 50kg in a matter of weeks.

"With one of the benches I've the knee extension so I can put weight on that," he says. "I have a lot compared to what most lads would have - I'd have built up a lot over the years."

Through the modern miracle of Zoom, his recovery is being steered by Clare physio Liam Walsh as well as his Edinburgh-based cousin, Clem Nihill, who has a physiotherapy and S&C background. In this brave new world, everything is online.

A primary teacher in St Aidan's of Shannon - Ger Loughnane's old school - Conlon can liaise remotely with his pupils via Aladdin Connect and Seesaw. Working from home has also been "ideal" in facilitating his recovery.

"I was getting up early in the morning because I couldn't really sleep with the pain," he recalls of those first few weeks.

"I'd be going around with cups of ice all day. And then trying to do all my exercises to get the movement back in it - get my flexion back and get my extension back.

"I could sit down with the laptop on the couch and me on the ground, and just do the exercises for the day. You weren't moving anywhere."

In the last few weeks he's been able to go cycling (20km every second day) as well as walking a circular 7.5km route. So far, so promising.

* * * * *

The big imponderable: will there be an inter-county season for our cruciate survivors on the comeback trail?

"I can't see it happening," admits Egan, 29 this month. "I just can't. With the amateur environment and all that. People have to go to work. Just anyone in a medical or front line (job) … how in God's name can they go into work the next day?

"Everyone wants to get back in some form, but health and safety have to come first. I suppose we'll only see in the next few months."

Conlon, 31 in June, would struggle to be fit even for an end-of-year rendition.

There is another complication: in October, he and Michelle are due to get married in the Spanish resort of Nerja.

While wedding plans are currently shrouded in travel restriction worries, he equally remains unsure if an autumn championship can happen.

"It will be interesting to see how the soccer goes," he says, citing the Bundesliga's return last weekend and next month's touted Premier League resumption.

"This (coronavirus) is probably going to be around for a long time, so how do we learn to live with it? Maybe we have to put plans in place."

Conlon is already looking forward to when he can visit the local pitch and puck around with his clubmates.

"I have an end goal to try and get back in, whatever, seven or eight months' time. And that's my goal. So, I don't feel too bad," he assures.

"As my wife-to-be said, 'Are you missing it?' Sure, I said, you can't miss it if it's not there."