Having been through a long and painful recovery from an ACL injury before, Amber Pilley was prepared for what was ahead of her when she unfortunately suffered a similar injury in the BHP Premiership pre-season earlier this year.
However, no one could have predicted what was to come. This year, more than any other in recent memory, has been one where everyone has been forced to take stock and re-assess their long-term goals; and this has been no different for the Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons centre.
Despite the uncertainty everywhere else however, the Burleigh Bears and Brisbane Broncos fan favourite has found her recovery process to be something she can focus on and control, having learnt from her past recovery experience as a teenager playing sevens and touch football.
Get to know: Amber Pilley
“I did my ACL, MCL and meniscus as well. It’s only been about 11 weeks since I have had the operation. When I did it (in February), I had to wait a while to go and see the surgeon,” Pilley said.
“But it was pretty good, and I went and saw Dr Bonnie (McRae – who works with the Maroons, Broncos NRLW and BHP Premiership teams) who set me up with the surgeon, who was actually the same surgeon who had done my knee five years ago by random coincidence.
“And I also went to go see Carly (Jennar – Maroons, Broncos and Tweed Seagulls physiotherapist) ... I had (already) been seeing Carly weekly just getting rub downs to loosen it up, to give me some exercises and to check on my progress on straightening and bending.
“Now in the past two or three weeks, my leg got to the point where it was straight, so I could up my training a little bit more and ... hopefully running is not too far away after that.
“I am walking without my crutches, and I am back into training semi-properly – so it just feels exciting because it’s starting to slowly return to normal now.
“I have been able to enjoy my rehab process, which is so funny, because looking at it ... (this year) there would have been State of Origin to work towards, I would have got to play in the NRLW again maybe, to be pushing for further rep opportunities... there was still that in mind.
“But having people with you and supporting you – it was more than just setting up the surgery date and the surgeon, it has been continued support afterwards; follow ups, check-ins from heaps of different staff who are just calling me to make sure I am okay.
“The whole process, I just haven’t felt alone in any of it and it’s just been such a good experience and I have just really enjoyed having the time to myself to train.
“Everyone from footy, just the whole community of rugby league, has just been so awesome with everything, friends from other teams, people that I don’t even know have reached out, all the coaches, heaps of different staff members, so it’s just been really lovely.”
Aspiring Maroons battle through intense boot camp
While Pilley has embraced the positives of her rehab, even before she injured her leg, there were some setbacks to overcome.
Pilley, who lists former Queensland Maroons skipper Greg Inglis as her favourite player, was pragmatic about her omission from this year’s Women’s NRL Indigenous All Stars team and admitted at the time there was work for her to do in order to be at her very best. In a strange way, her setback has helped her find a new mindset.
“It was hard; the All Stars thing was a bit of a blow, but it takes refocusing and looking at the bigger picture, getting back on the bandwagon and having an attitude where you don’t give up,” Pilley said.
“Sometimes, it is very hard to self motivate and I am really bad at that ... something about this whole year, from COVID to isolation, the whole experience of doing my knee, there has been a complete shift in energy and focus and I really honed into what I want to achieve and what I am capable of doing.
“If I am being honest, this has given me such a good time to reset because I was in very negative place where I wasn’t enjoying training and I was feeling doubtful about myself and all sorts of things across the board; not just from not making the team.
“I don’t know what it was, but you know you have to hold yourself accountable to get back and you want to come back as soon as possible, so you know you need to put in the hard work to get there, and that’s the whole process with my knee; mentally, physically, as a metaphor, the whole thing getting it straight, but you have got to take it day by day to get where you need to be.”
Pilley has also used her time to fully engage in her hobbies including gaming and comics and also to further explore her Indigenous heritage and engage with and educate others about why she is such a passionate advocate for uplifting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island voices.
Her mob is Wiradjuri in Mudgee, with Pilley and her family moving to the Gold Coast when she was two.
“You are more than just footy – I think people get caught up in the athlete thing, and even NRL, people hate mixing politics and sport, but it’s not about mixing politics and sport, it’s about people with lived experiences sharing their truth and sharing their stories and educating,” Pilley said.
“I always relate this back to All Stars week and that for me is a prime example of the sport being more than just a sport, for me, that’s a whole week when I am immersed in culture and I get to learn more about myself, more about my team-mates, more about the opposite team, more about another country and their culture.
“The NRL has always tried to celebrate culture, we are a super inclusive community and I think that is represented through the women’s (game) and through the men’s (game).
“If you strip it back down, that’s what the NRL is, it’s more than just the sport - it’s the community, it’s the feeling, it’s the atmosphere, it’s everything.”
For now, Pilley’s focus is on getting her leg right and while it is unlikely that she will be able to take to the field again this year; that’s not stopping her from preparing like she will be.
“It’s hard, from a surgical standpoint where they tell you, this is the timeframe, and I shouldn’t be back until next year around the same time as I did it... but in saying that, injuries are things that everyone deals with at different times with different lengths and processes,” Pilley said.
“For example, when I ask when am I able to run, they say ‘it’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of when your leg is ready’, so it is just a process and if I can work as hard as I can now; but I am not going to rule that I am a chance of playing, I am going to continue to train like I am a chance of playing and hopefully I can achieve that.
“And if it doesn’t happen, then I just have to keep focused for next year.
“The big thing for me is that I love playing for the Broncos, I love playing State of Origin and I know this year is probably going to be a year where someone else plays in my jersey, plays in my number, plays in my position, and that’s going to be enough fuel in the fire for me to want to work hard to reclaim my spot for next year.”