Elliott Stooke exclusive: From injury horror that left him with 50 pieces of metal in his ankle to a new life in Montpellier

James While
Elliott Stooke for Wasps

Elliott Stooke is one of rugby’s good guys.

A supreme lineout technician, a player that’s floated around the fringes of Test rugby on many occasions without getting the cap his talents deserve and a man that was in the form of his life with Wasps, on course to play in every match in the 2021/22 season.

However, rugby is a fickle master and one afternoon last May, Stooke rose to claim a restart against Sale and his 119kg came crashing down on his fibula, shattering the bones at right angles, causing the match to be halted for fully 10 minutes and for the silky tones of commentator Nick Mullins assuring viewers that the break had been so gruesome BT Sport were not offering a replay of the moment.

Dark days

With months of rehabilitation ahead of him, further disruption was just around the corner in the shape of Wasps‘ well publicised administration – leaving Stooke both jobless and still on his road back from injury.

“Look, it was a dark moment,” he admitted.

“I’m not sure I ever quite thought of quitting, but it polarised the need in my mind to make sure that I found something suitable for me – and that means putting my needs first. I realised I might need to sit back and wait for that right opportunity to happen and I was well aware of the compression of salaries in the Premiership.

“It brought home to me just how short a rugby career can be. One moment on a pitch and your life can change in an instant. Often, players don’t have control of when that moment is – a freak injury and that’s it – your career could be gone. You know, it really brings it home when you realise you’re literally one tackle away from the end of your career. I have 50 pieces of metal in my ankle now and I am thankful to the medical team whose skills have put me in a position where I can play once more.

“We often talk about mental health in players, but I’m not sure even now we think deeply enough about the impact of change and transition in a player’s career and I’m not surprised when I hear about other players’ really struggling when they come to the end or, worst case, the end is reached for them.

“The events at Worcester Warriors and Wasps have really amplified that those fears; the game is going through a tough, tough time and I’d gotten to a point where I didn’t want to take further salary cuts – I felt I was a proven quantity on the pitch in a position that’s difficult to resource quality players in and that I wanted to secure both my playing and financial future.

“In France there’s a little more headroom for budgets. We know that the English market is saturated with talent after 80 odd players hit the market post Worcester and Wasps and I had the chance, during my downtime during rehab, to get some clarity in my thinking of what I wanted to do,” Stooke explained.

Barbarians turning point

“You know, when I was younger, rugby was all I wanted. I still love the game now and at 29 I’m indebted to the sport for the experiences it’s given me but I realised I needed to secure my future. Ironically, the point I fell back in love was getting picked for the Barbarians mini tour last November; to really absorb the qualities of the Baa-baas and to remember the reasons why I played kick started me back into the elite game. Enjoyment, teamship and success together – those are the things that really matter as a player and, other than the wages, that’s why you play the game.

“From there, I’ve enjoyed my brief sojourn to Bristol, but when the Montpellier opportunity came up, I absolutely could not say no. It’s a wonderful club in a beautiful area of France and I had the touchpoints of prop Henry Thomas and back-rower Zach Mercer – two guys I got on well with at Bath – to offer a familiar face and some social continuity – although I honestly thought I’d seen enough of Henry’s backside to last me a lifetime!

“I was also attracted to the prospect of playing alongside a lock of the quality of Paul Willemse – a real world class performer and a giant of a man. Since arriving, I’ve been paired up in training with Big Pauly – a wonderful man, fluent in three languages and a real adopted Frenchman now, despite his Afrikaaner heritage. He’s gone out of his way to make me feel welcome here, and we spent a lot of time just chatting around the weights and conditioning sessions this week. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his company and his willingness to translate given my rather rudimentary French skills!” quipped Stooke.

Game health

“Looking back, I’ve been fortunate to play for some great rugby clubs in Gloucester, Bath and Wasps. Sure, I’d have loved that elusive cap and I got close. And of course I’d like to revisit that at some point, given form and availability. I really enjoyed the times I spent in the wider England squad with Eddie Jones – he’s a brilliant, brilliant coach and certainly my experience of him was positive and I’ll cherish those moments.

“Wasps’ situation is a frustration, I have to admit. We really had a special group of players and coaches that allowed player empowerment. A great atmosphere to be in, but ultimately, I feel the wider club never quite captured the hearts and minds of the local fan base in the way that Gloucester or Bath have managed. I think this is down to the sheer size of the area and the fact we were sort of ‘incomers’.

“Both Bath and Gloucester have no competition from football and are the focal points as rugby clubs of the local community. Wasps perhaps were in a similar position to London Irish when they were detached from their own traditional fanbase; Reading and the Madejski never quite worked but now they’re back in Brentford they’ve reconnected to that fanbase and the whole place is buzzing when you go down there which is great to see,” Stooke noted.

“Looking forward, my family are still in UK and I have a contract until the end of the current Top 14 season. My aim is to consolidate here with a view to extending that contract, subject to form and of course, fitness.

“I’m about to move into digs with Henry Thomas which will mean I have the touchpoint of an old mate to get me through the language barrier and to help familiarise me with the playing group and with the local area. And of course, Zach is here too, at least until the end of the season.

“It’s been an up and down ride, but it’s time for me to secure my playing future, to really use my experiences in a new and highly competitive environment, but above all, get some financial surety in my life as the last year or so has really driven home to me how fragile and vulnerable a playing career is.”

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