Six years after being told his career was over by doctors – and two years after his coach informed him he’d never take the field for his country again – Simon Hunt is preparing to pull on an England shirt at the Commonwealth Games.
The Birmingham & Solihull wing’s career got off to a flying start with appearances for England’s Sevens, Students and Under 21 teams, and a move to France that saw him feature for Perpignan in the 2003 Heineken Cup final against Toulouse.
A year later he suffered a horrific multiple knee ligament injury. Medical opinion was that his playing days were irrevocably over.
He worked his way back into the professional game, though, and re-established himself for England Sevens, only for a falling out with head coach Ben Ryan to leave him in the cold once more.
Like his left knee, that relationship has been repaired and the 29-year-old will be prouder than ever when he pulls the shirt back on as 2006 silver medallists England prepare to face Sri Lanka, Uganda and Australia in the pool stages on October 11 with the medals decided the following day.
“I’ve been in and out of the squad and Commonwealth Games have come and gone and I’ve missed them all,” said Hunt. “This was always going to be my last shot. It’s come as a bit of a surprise and now I can’t wait.”
That he is playing at all is a testament to his own durability and the skill and kindness of others. Readers of a nervous disposition may want to look away now.
“My career has certainly had its ups and downs,” said Hunt. “I was in a European Cup final with Perpignan and then against Toulouse the following season the bottom half of my leg basically became detached from the top.
“My shin went flat into the ground but the knee kept on going downwards. I actually stood up and took four or five steps before I realised what had happened.
“I’d torn my Posterior Cruciate Ligament, my Medial Cruciate Ligament and my Anterior Cruciate Ligament – I’d snapped my PCL completely and I don’t have that in my left knee any more. I tore pretty much everything there is to tear. I was in an air cast for a few months. Two French doctors told me I’d never play again.
“I was out of contract at the time, in contract negotiations, so I was buggered really. Pretty much no-one wanted to sign me and I could feel my career falling down around my ears. I didn’t even have anywhere to do any rehab because no-one would take a risk of signing me.
“Luckily I knew Kingsley Jones fairly well and through playing in France I knew Philippe Saint-Andre too and they invited me up to Sale [where they were coaching] partly on trial but basically to complete my rehab and sort my knee out.
“They were fantastic. I went on a pre-season tour with them to France and the first game back was playing against Perpignan, which was pretty weird. I suppose if I’d listened to the doctors I’d be trying to get to the Commonwealth Games in lawn bowls or another sport.”
Hunt recovered to have productive spells with Ebbw Vale and under Richard Hill at Bristol before moving to Birmingham, for whom he scored 31 tries in 2008-09 under England Sevens assistant coach Russell Earnshaw, himself a Commonwealth Games competitor in 1998.
He was back in the England mix, too, between 2006 and 2008, until his off-field behaviour at the 2008 London tournament led to Ryan casting him into the darkness once more.
“I was having some personal problems at the time and didn’t handle them particularly well and we had a bit of a disagreement,” said Hunt. “People do, but it’s obviously not a great idea to fall out with your coach and it doesn’t help selection.”
Ryan added: “Simon stepped out of line two years ago and I took away his international career for 24 months as a result.
“Discipline is vital, as is understanding the individual. He has matured now and earned my respect. Simon deserves a second chance to give his career the success his ability, and now his character, can support."
Just being in Delhi won’t be enough for Hunt and his teammates, who believe they have the ability to strike gold, despite New Zealand, Australia and Samoa being the fancied runners.
“People talk about the Southern Hemisphere teams but I don’t think anyone will have trained harder than us for 12 weeks or be as well prepared as us,” said Hunt.
“We’ve got the ammunition. We’ve got youth, we’ve got experience, we’ve got size, we’ve got pace. Everyone knows what they’re doing and we’re all on the same page. The lead-up’s been good and now it’s just a case of putting it together for each game.
"It’s international Sevens. No-one’s bad, everyone’s fit, everyone’s strong, but some teams have more rugby nous than others. It’s about outwitting sides that you’re playing which I’m sure we can do.”