Matt Ballin returned to the Rugby League field earlier today for his first game in nine months, after suffering a second anterior cruciate ligament [ACL] injury in as many years.
In his time at the Manly Sea Eagles, then-coach Geoff Toovey described Ballin as one of the toughest players to lace up a boot, after playing 182 consecutive games for the club, and even battling through 22 minutes on the field with a broken leg. The next year he tore his ACL, eventually signed with the Wests Tigers for the 2016 season, and then after just two NRL appearances, tore his ACL again.
Three major injuries in three years is astonishing considering he barely missed a game for eight seasons, and the resilience shown to once again take the field today proves his physical and mental toughness.
“It was just disappointing,” Ballin explains to NSWRL.com.au, referring to the second time he injured his ACL.
“All the hard work that the medical staff put in, and you personally put in, and all of the support shown by your family, and then you know you have to go through it all again, it’s a little bit demoralising.
“In saying that, it’s probably strengthened me as a person, and my family as well, so it was a tough stint, but it’s been good for us in the long run.”
That raw optimism is the difference between Ballin returning to the field today and another player possibly cutting their losses and giving the game away.
He admits he was close to playing in the opening round last week, but wasn’t prepared to take any risks if it meant potentially spending more time on the sidelines.
“It was more just a timing issue, the knee was fine, but the surgeon wanted to wait the full nine months because it’s a second revision surgery,” Ballin says.
“But I’m here now, the knee felt fine, but timing and fitness-wise I’ve got a little bit of work to do.”
Ballin started the Intrust Super Premiership NSW match on the bench, and interchanged the hooker role with rising-star Jeremy Marshall-King in their 52-12 defeat at the hands of Penrith.
He has been training full-time for five weeks, and aims to slowly progress back into the NRL side.
“Personally, I felt I tackled pretty well and passed pretty well,” Ballin says.
“In the first game in nine months it’s pretty good, we defended a lot, but Penrith held the ball well and we struggled a little bit, so they point some points on us.
“[NRL] is the goal, I’ll spend a couple of weeks in reserve grade and get my fitness and timing back. We’ve got Matty McIlwrick and Jack Littlejohn playing pretty well, so I’ve got to have to play well to push them out.”
A host of hookers at the Wests Tigers has created a healthy competition between Ballin, the two players he mentioned, as well as young gun Jacob Liddle.
That is not something Ballin backs away from; in fact, he embraces the situation, once again proving why he is such an asset to the club.
“It’s great, I’m learning a lot of them,” Ballin says.
“Whatever I can help them with I do as well, so it’s a really good environment.”