Michael Rhodes in action for Saracens in 2017. Photo: Action Images / Andrew Couldridge

LONDON - There were a few house rules when former Sharks flank Michael Rhodes returned to the family farm for a week on injury rehab.

One: No swimming in the river at the bottom of the garden where a labourer once had his arm bitten off by a crocodile.

Two: Watch for the python which ate five of his pet rabbits in one overnight sitting.

Three: Avoid the 3m-tall sugar cane plantation which provides a regular hiding place for hungry lions.

Fortunately, Rhodes managed to steer clear of any occupational hazards at his home in the Kruger Park.

Now the South African-born forward is back to full fitness and ready to lead the charge with Saracens, and, possibly, England.

“You need to be careful if you’re out for a run back there," says Rhodes with a laugh, as his son, Jack, throws a toy rhino around the living room of his second home in St Albans, England. 

"I’ve been charged by elephants, my dog was eaten by a leopard and I’ve come face to face with a rearing 3m-long Mozambican cobra.

“I walk around St Albans sometimes and think, 'Really, is there nothing on this island that can kill you?' That’s so boring!” ‘

The scars across Rhodes’s shoulder and leg could pass for the collateral damage of an attack by a wild animal.

Surgeries

They are, in fact, the result of surgeries which threatened the career of a player recently hailed as the best blindside flanker in England.

“When I retire, I think my body will just melt into a pile of sinew and bone,” jokes Rhodes, who moved to England in 2015 with his South African wife, Cara.

“In my first two years at Saracens, I played 64 games, most for 80 minutes, so maybe all that game time has caught up with me - the two injuries have been pretty nasty.

“They put a titanium plate in to hold my collarbone together and it turned out I am the one in a million who is allergic to titanium. It got infected and I had four surgeries on the same thing. 

"The wound was always red and angry. I got to the point where I said: 'Fourth time staples, stitches, all sorts this isn’t worth it - I’ll never be the same player again'.

“We got there, but then I did my hamstring and it turned out it had completely ruptured off the bone. It was halfway up my leg and you could sort of see it sticking out. 

"They had to slice my leg open to fetch it and tie it back down. It joins up with the other half of the hamstring now so they stitched and stitched and stitched and left a pretty long scar.

“But it’s all good now ... all that stuff is in the past. It’s been a rocky time, but there’s a chance to end the year strongly."

The Rhodes family crest carries the motto “Strength through God” under an image of a lion carrying an elephant’s tusk. The crest is tattooed on his back and has been apt considering his recovery, which continued against London Irish on Sunday, with Sarries pushing to secure a home semi-final in the play-offs.

Rhodes started in the No 6 jersey, while Billy Vunipola provided a reassuring presence from the bench as he too returned from injury. Saracens have been shorn of their two leading back-row forwards for most of the season, and it’s shown.

“The one silver lining of being out of Europe is that we can put all our attention into the Premiership,” says Rhodes. “In 2016 and 2017 we were going week-in week-out and it breaks you. It absolutely shreds you.

Straps

“We’ve only really hit our straps two or three times this season. It’s been a massive boost to have Billy back. He can run into five guys and still go forward two metres. His style is pretty unique.”

With England’s tour of South Africa looming, Vunipola’s return will provide an immediate boost for club and country. The Tests will be played on the doorstep of Rhodes’s home and some of his team-mates’ families, including hooker Jamie George have booked to stay on his farm, which has diversified from growing sugar cane, mango, papaya and lychees to also being a safari lodge.

The tour, however, will come too soon for Rhodes, who will only become eligible, through the three-year residency rule, to play for England in July.

Coach Eddie Jones, nevertheless, has already been in contact with the 6ft 6in 30-year-old as he prepares to retune his squad for next year’s World Cup.

“Everyone’s got a bit of a point to prove, don’t they?" says Rhodes, who could also qualify for France through a grandfather. I didn’t move over here with intentions of playing for England, but I’d love to. 

“I’ll become eligible in July, so those autumn Tests are a target. A World Cup would be the cherry on the cake, but I’m not getting ahead of myself. I’ve had a couple of conversations with Eddie. Just general chats.”

Rhodes is up for the challenge and you suspect he is well prepared to handle the big beasts on and off the pitch. 

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