This weekend will see the end of one of England’s great rugby careers, when Tom May plays his final professional game for London Welsh. Tom, now on RBN London’s organising committee, was capped twice for England and will retire sitting third on the all-time list for Premiership appearances. To those 247 Premiership caps, spanning 17 years for Newcastle, Northampton and Welsh, can be added another 31 top-tier games for Toulon, where he spent two seasons. Below, Tom looks back on his career and contrasts the game he left school to play with the one we now enjoy.
Rugby is far behind football in terms of how long it has been professional as the game only turned pro during 1995 with an era of players who had grown up working alongside playing. Many gave up their day jobs to give it a go, but some chose not to, preferring to stay employed where their futures were more secure.
There aren’t many current players who worked alongside those guys and I’m not sure I’m happy about the fact that I am one of them as it shows how old I am. When I started playing professionally, I had the chance to train with the likes of Ben Clarke, Scott Quinnell, Adrian Davies, Rolando Martin, Gus Pichot and ex-Irish full-back Simon Mason. Great players who chose to turn professional when the opportunity arose.
Professional sides back then were effectively working within an amateur set up – the only difference being the cheques handed out at the end of each month. Medical departments were at best basic, strength and conditioning facilities were small gyms or porta-cabins on site, levels of coaching weren’t fantastic and playing surfaces in the winter were, at best, dodgy.
Wind forward to 2015 and we have a completely different scenario. Clubs have spent millions developing the systems providing care and attention for their prized assets (the players) and coaching has developed, being delivered by ex-players who have excelled in the game. They have spent time and effort developing skills which, in turn, allow players to develop, increasing the value to spectators, sponsors and the clubs themselves.
We have a sport which is now an entertainment business. I think rugby union has some way to go to get the levels reached in a brand like Super League, but the entertainment proposition is far better than it was when I started playing the game in 1997. It’s growing as a proposition and everything associated with it is benefiting from that.
It may seem obvious given the amount of time spent training and the highly scientific nature of strength and conditioning, but the fitness levels required to play professional rugby have left those required back in 1997 way behind. So much emphasis is now put on pushing players to limits.
Training is harder than the games, so when the weekend comes it seems ‘easier’. Gone are the days of the old-school bleep test – it has been replaced by things like the Cooper and Yo-Yo tests (both disgusting in their own ways). Pre-season sees players put through levels of physical stress that would have broken people seventeen years ago.
The front five doing speed training and handling drills as a regular part of their preparation would hardly have been seen back then. Positions within a rugby team might have stereotypical images, but now each one has a similar skill set. No longer do you get props that only scrummage during games and eat McDonalds the rest of the time (you may argue there are some, but the majority know how to catch and pass and finish a three-on-two).
Players are much bigger and stronger. I’m 100% sure that when my age-group left school and starting out on our professional careers, we weren’t bench pressing 150kg and squatting obscene amounts. Those leaving school today are. Look at players like Tom Stephenson from Northampton Saints and Sam Hill from Exeter Chiefs, when I was soon out of school there was no way I had the strength and physical stature that they have now.
One thing for sure though is that players won’t now last as long. I have been lucky to have a seventeen year career and, touch wood, I haven’t had too many injuries along the way, none serious anyway. I don’t think that’s possible anymore. Size, strength, pace and power combined with the intensity of the game today means players will break unless they are looked after properly. That only means one thing – they have to play less rugby.
Small grounds like the old Kingston Park in 1998, Goldington Road when Bedford were in the Premiership and Sale’s Heywood Road are a thing of the past. All grounds now must reach a standard high enough to host top-class professional rugby, meaning they have to hold a certain amount of spectators and have a sufficiently good surface to allow a decent brand of rugby.
I think we will see more and more surfaces turn into artificial pitches. Saracens and Newcastle won’t be the only teams for long. Commercially it makes sense and it creates many opportunities for the club as well as the benefits to the team. The club can host more than one game a week or more than one game a day, which pulls in even more crowds. Communities can be created around the club and the pitch can be the hub of that. Back in 1997 and until the approval of artificial pitches, you could almost tell what the surface at different clubs was going to be like dependent on the time of year.
Sponsorship is now on a different level. The sums of money being paid have increased massively and that is largely due to the new television deals in place. Sky have had a huge part to play over the years and their effort has had a massive effect on the game. They continue to provide some of the best coverage around on a range of rugby.
BT have now taken over that mantle and players and clubs are getting even more exposure than previously thought possible. Now, there are two or three televised games each weekend whereas we were lucky to get one back when in 1998.
There is no doubt the game has expanded because of this. In the French Top 14, every game is shown on Canal Plus during the weekend and I can see the UK game, certainly in England, going the same way too. It’s all good for rugby.
I’ve enjoyed being involved in the changing game over the years. It’s only now when I stop and look back at how big the gap is between now and then that I appreciate what it has been to be a part of it.
Players that are starting out on their careers will have huge opportunities to be a part of a professional game that has advanced tenfold and will continue to over the next decade and beyond. At their age, it’s hard for them to understand some of the most important things about the game and what it has to offer in terms of opportunity, but over time and through experience they will be proud to have been involved in a truly great professional set up.