Ask Keelan Giles for detail about the injuries he has suffered in the last few years and he’ll take a brief pause to make sure he gets it all right.
The fact he has to give it a moment’s thought, just to get the order accurate, tells you everything you really need to know about the journey he has endured in the last five years. After bursting onto the scene with 11 tries in his first seven professional matches – and earning a call-up to the Wales squad – disaster struck in a 2017 clash with the Dragons. That was his first serious knee injury and a reconstruction was required.
A year on the sidelines followed but then another mighty setback came. He suffered knee ligament damage in the opposite limb in a 2019 fixture against Benetton. Another 450 days on the sidelines. Oh, and he’s had his hamstring “tightened”. Still aged only 24, the one-time BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year nominee has had his fair share of challenges.
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For the best part of five years, his career was completely derailed by injury. The mini comebacks were slashed short by more setbacks. But Giles’ story is one of grit and he has shown the kind of resilience that those of us operating outside the world of professional sport might struggle to comprehend.
“It’s a journey and it can be tough at times,” he says. “As long as you have the self-belief and support at the club, family and friends, they make the journey a lot easier. The biggest part of it has been building my self-belief and confidence.”
The Ospreys deserve credit, too. They have not turned their back on a young man who has spent more time on the physio table than one might have hoped, however prodigiously talented he may be.
He recently signed a two-year contract extension and the region is starting to see the benefits. Happily, he has started eight United Rugby Championship games this season and his most recent outing in the Ospreys’ 54-36 win over the Scarlets was a real eye-catcher. Two 50-metre breaks led to tries for his team-mates, he walked another in and forced Corey Baldwin into cynically slapping down an offload which resulted in a yellow card that proved crucial.
Ospreys boss Toby Booth said: “Keelan Giles is a guy who’s been out for a very long time. For me, he’s been there or thereabouts as man of the match for the last two weeks. He has an influence on the defence and we want those sorts of players.
“He made two 50-metre breaks and caused the defence to make a decision which resulted in a yellow card and all of a sudden the pressure line goes the other way. You want people who can influence the game, especially in your backline. George [North], Keelan, Gareth [Anscombe], Owen Watkin has done it for Wales and us, the more game-changers you have in your backline, the harder it is to defend.”
Giles himself adds: “[I need to] get my hands on the ball. I’ll always back myself defensively and it’s just about trying to get more touches on the ball. When I first came back, I wasn’t getting many touches. As a collective and the way we’re playing as a team contributes to that.”
Much of the discourse around Giles relates to his attacking game. Four clean breaks and five defenders beaten will give a man somewhat of a reputation. But, despite his diminutive stature, his defence also caught the eye at the Swansea.com Stadium.
In the first 10 minutes, Giles had to make two try-saving tackles in his own 22 and he cut a Scarlets counter-attack short in the second half with a notable hit. It was a real all-court performance.
With a wry smile, he says: “There are always question marks with me being 5ft 9ins and being pretty light, so yeah it’s nice to showcase a bit of the defensive side.”
Speed is such an important facet of Giles’ game. It’s his point of difference, what separates him from his peers. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, after two major knee operations and hamstring trouble, he might have lost a yard or two. On the contrary, Giles insists he is faster than ever, recently clocking a personal best of 10.4 metres per second, which puts him in the same company as the likes of Louis Rees-Zammit.
And like the Gloucester speedster, Giles insists: “I’ve just got to keep going. I think I can get quicker, which is only a positive.” It’s a claim to send shivers down the spines of defence coaches across the league.