Baby steps bring Jack Nowell back with fresh perspective

Jack Nowell missed England's tour of South Africa in June to undergo ankle surgery, and faces the new Gallagher Premiership season fit and rejuvenated by fatherhood. Dan Mullan/Getty Images

After a season which left Jack Nowell mentally and physically broken, he needed a break from the game. But it was not a normal summer.

A week before he had surgery on his ankle, his daughter, Nori, was born.

Nowell, the England and Exeter Chiefs winger, is assessing the turbulence of fatherhood. "We've got her swimming lesson next week," Nowell tells ESPN. "People tell me I'm mental, but as a kid I was in the water so much and I want it to be exactly the same for her." The conversation switches to the varying degrees of nappy explosions and sleep management, but all the way through is Nowell's unshakeable glee about a turbulent few months as he and his partner, Zoe, embrace being parents.

When the final whistle blew at last season's Premiership final, the television camera panned to Nowell, who was in tears. In that very moment as he assessed Exeter's defeat to Saracens, there was exhaustion. "I felt my whole body shutting down afterwards," says the 25-year-old. "I was injured through the season, fractured my face and it felt like I was always chasing last season, trying to get fit again, chasing games. Towards the end it was almost relief it was over, that I had this time to get rehab, get the operation I needed and switch off a little bit from rugby. It was an off-season I needed and will help my career in the long run."

But it will be remembered fondly for Nori's arrival. "The birth of my daughter allowed me to stay away from the club and miss it a bit.

"You know being a dad.... It's not really one of those goals you have growing up, being in rugby you're so focused on that, but when you're there and amongst it, you are so grateful it's happened to you and there's this chance to raise a human you've made ... I'm so smitten by her.

"People always ask about how I switch off from rugby but to have a little girl is how that happens. She's so cool, mate."

Nori is a name made up by his partner, Zoe. She played around with Nora, added a few E's, and S's here and there but when they first clasped eyes on their new daughter, she became Nori Nowell. But there is tongue-in-cheek controversy already around Nori, as she is a Devonian, born outside of the Cornish sea air which runs through Nowell's family. "They did ask if she was going to be in Cornwall, asking if we were going to go home for the birth of her, but my girlfriend didn't allow that. She's a Devonian, I've been here for seven or eight years so it's only fair that I share a bit of that with her.

"I looked to my family for advice, though. My girlfriend is very good at this, and she spends a lot of time on Google, but sometimes that's bad. A lot of the boys here have babies and there's a lot of support there for her, too. My mum was up here within three days of being born so my family are the first people I go to."

Been an awesome day, thank you little lady❤️

A post shared by Jack Nowell (@jacknowell) on

Nowell came through the Exeter academy in the golden group alongside Henry Slade, Sam Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie. He is the first of that batch to become a dad, but he is not predicting the others will follow suit anytime soon. So instead, they are watching on as Nowell navigates fatherhood. "I'm a particular individual and not much fazes me and I wouldn't want fatherhood to change me too much. I still want to do the things I want to do, but I want to do it with her."

With the new Gallagher Premiership season kicking off this weekend, Nowell has had to factor fatherhood into pre-season preparations. "Pre-season is so long that I leave home at 7.30am and I'm not normally home by 5pm. So by that time she's bathed and ready for bed, so I normally ruin the routine, dragging her down to the beach or out for food. I'm maybe the villain there at the moment.

"But mate ... it's amazing. You've got this little fragile thing in front of you, you need to be so careful and you're caring for her and that's the most important thing you need to think of."

The recovery from ankle surgery is progressing well -- thanks also to the role the Exeter Chiefs' new Red Bull Sports Science Suite -- and he is back in the England squad having sat out their tour of South Africa. With the Rugby World Cup lying in wait next September, Nowell hopes his time off from rugby this summer will pay dividends through this campaign, having experienced how gruelling these years are where the current season merges straight into international duties and then the World Cup. Nowell hopes to be in the shape and form of his life, but he is a different figure to the one we saw emotionally wiped, in tears, at Twickenham last year. He now has a fresh perspective on life.

"The main reason I play is because of fun, I like to spend time with my mates and that's changed a bit now. The reason I play is now also because of [Nori] and I want her to have the best life she can have. That's changed my mindset a bit like that, it's only going to be better for me and better for her, as well."