Sam Shaw is no stranger to being in the ‘rehab’ group at West Lakes.
In three-and-a-half years with Adelaide, the games Shaw has missed through injury outnumber the games he’s played.
The promising 22-year-old started to reverse the ledger last season.
He made his long-awaited debut against Greater Western Sydney at AAMI Stadium in Round Four. A minor hamstring complaint forced him to wait another five weeks before playing his second AFL game, but from there he cemented his place in the Crows team. He played a total of 14 matches for the season, adding another dimension to Adelaide’s back six and earning a NAB Rising Star nomination for his performance against the Brisbane Lions in Round 21.
Shaw’s season came to a cruel end when he injured his hamstring in Adelaide’s Semi-Final win over Fremantle. Despite the devastating finish, it was a breakthrough season for the quick and agile defender, giving him cause for great optimism for 2013.
Unfortunately, a bout of knee tendonitis, which Shaw battled for much of 2012, flared up soon after the players returned for the start of pre-season training.
“I was struggling with my knees about halfway through last season. By the end of the year, I had no strength or power in my legs,” Shaw said.
“I tried to manage it through the off-season and start of pre-season, but it’s a longer-term injury. It’s not uncommon … a lot of players go through it. You just have to manage your workload.”
As a result, Shaw was placed on a modified training program over the summer.
He made it back in time to play one NAB Cup game against Carlton, but needed more match fitness before being considered for AFL selection and opened the season at Glenelg.
The 193cm, 89kg, defender built up his game time over a few weeks and was nearing a recall to the Crows side when he felt a sharp pain in his hamstring at training in the lead-up Round Three.
Immediately, he knew what he’d done. He’d been there before and his frustration was obvious.
“In the training footage from that day you can see me throw my boot away and have a bit of a tantrum, which is a bit embarrassing but probably understandable at the time,” he said with a laugh.
“I’d been playing at Glenelg and finally felt as though I was starting to get my form back to where I was at last year. It was just one of those things. There were no warning signs. It just went.
“It was a typical hamstring where it appears as though you’ve been shot from the stands.”
But scans revealed it wasn’t a typical hamstring injury. Instead of tearing muscle, Shaw had sustained a grade two tear of his ‘interior tendon’ – an injury with a longer recovery time.
The decision was made to place Shaw on the Club’s long-term injury list, ruling him out of football at any level for two months. He was in rehab again, but it was different this time.
“It was disappointing, but I came to terms with it … it’s certainly something I’ve been through before and I’ve got a good support network that keeps me level-headed at those times,” he said.
“The experience of playing some games last year really gave me the belief I can play at the level. Previously, because I hadn’t debuted and had issues with my body I questioned myself at times as to whether I could play at the level.
“Now, I’m really comfortable that if I’m picked in the side I’ll do my job.”
Shaw distracted himself with his university studies - he’s patiently working through one subject a semester in a Bachelor of Business. His girlfriend Sarah, who is the sister of teammate David Mackay, had recently relocated to Adelaide, and that helped too. The affable Crow has also started playing golf regularly with fellow young players Jarryd Lyons and Brodie Smith.
“Jarryd’s a very handy golfer, but Brodie and I are just making up the numbers at this stage … it’s more of a social outing for the two of us.”
Oddly, being told he couldn’t play for eight weeks provided a sense of comfort.
“Sando said to me, ‘We’ll give you this time to make sure you’re completely right. Even if you’re ready to go at six or seven weeks, we want to make sure you get the extra conditioning’,” Shaw said.
“I wanted to make sure I ticked all the right boxes before I got back to playing. Obviously, with hamstrings there’s a slight chance of recurrence and the tendon injury was a bit more serious.”
Shaw’s rehab started two days after the injury. The program was designed not only to help rebuild the strength around the damaged tendon, but to prevent similar injuries in the future.
He put on two kilograms as a result of his training, prompting teammate Patrick Dangerfield to label him as the “most ripped” player at the Club.
“A lot of that (weight gain) was pure leg muscle. I’m feeling really strong and confident now that this will be the last of it for the year,” Shaw said.
“I’ll be very diligent with my rehab and it won’t stop when I go back to playing. It’ll be long-term, trying to build up the strength around my legs. I think Danger needs to look in the mirror though.
“I put on a couple of kilograms early in my rehab, but since I started running again it’s been falling off me.”
Now, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Shaw joined in the warm-up with his teammates for the first time at training on Thursday. He hopes to resume full training next week with the aim of making a return with Glenelg in the next 2-3 weeks.
“I’m getting into high intensity running and football sessions. The aim is playing for Glenelg in a fortnight or so, but I’ve got to see how the next week or two go. The hammy is feeling really good and I haven’t had any setbacks.”
The extended layoff has also been beneficial for the resilient backman’s knees.
“Generally with patella tendonitis, if you have a bit of time off and then get back into training it can flare up, but it seems to have had a reverse effect on me,” he said.
“It’s given me time to freshen up. I’ve also been doing a lot of rehab work on my knees knowing that could be a potential issue coming back from my hammy.
“It’s the best I’ve felt for 12-18 months.”
All being well, Shaw’s name will be removed from the long-term injury list early next month. Rory Laird, who was upgraded in place of Shaw, could still stay on the senior list as a replacement for Taylor Walker, who has been put on the long-term injury list, with no replacement named at this stage, Clubs also have the option of using a 'mid-season rookie upgrade' after Round 11.
After a tough start, Shaw is determined to make the most of the second half of the season.
“I’ve been to our home games and SANFL games to watch all the other guys as well. It was tough at the start of the year when our form wasn’t as good as we would’ve liked. You want to go out there and help the team but you’re stuck on the sidelines and can’t do anything about it,” he said.
“It’s given me a lot of time to develop a real hunger to get back out there and I’m just excited to get back. I’m sure I’ll be ordinary to start with and very unfit, but I’m looking forward to getting back to Glenelg, playing well there and then hopefully pushing my case for (AFL) selection.”