'As a kid it sometimes takes a landmark event like the 2003 World Cup win to get you involved'
Legacy is a word often cheaply bandied about in sport. Host an event and the boffins on the organising committee will frequently be heard vaguely going on endlessly about what benefits might accrue in the long term.
It’s nice then to come across conclusive proof that some big rugby tournament has left a positive footprint somewhere along the line. Take Gloucester’s Tom Savage. But for England’s exploits in winning the 2003 World Cup, the long-serving Premiership lock might never have picked up a rugby ball.
“I was mainly into cycling and a few other sports and it wasn’t until I was around 15 or 16 when I fell into rugby,” said the late bloomer to RugbyPass about the accidental way he first fell into the sport. “It was because of the 2003 World Cup. A local senior side [Bishop’s Castle] introduced a junior section. A few mates went down from school and it all kicked off from there.
“My dad was always a keen rugby watcher, so he sat us down and made us watch it. He then saw there was an option to go and play locally, so he went and signed us up. That played a huge part in it, a landmark event in the sport. As a kid it sometimes takes something like that encourage you to get involved.
“I liked to watch Jason Robinson play. There was always that excitement when he got the ball, you knew something was going to happen. He was always good to watch, but I’m a million miles away from the type of game he played.”
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Gloucester have reaped the benefit of that Savage imagination ignited by Robinson’s dancing feet, the second row making nearly 200 appearances for them in a hectic rise up the ranks that was greatly assisted by current Championship outfit Hartpury.
The Gloucestershire minnows were only working their way through from their 11th tier of English rugby’s pyramid system when Savage was on their books some time ago, but those ties still bind.
He still gets along to matches at College Stadium and while the club’s immediate focus is on winning their relegation battle with London Scottish, Savage believes the tier two league is an invaluable breeding ground for professional level talent and is worthy of greater financial investment by the RFU.
“It’s vital for English rugby to have that level of competition. You might have someone who has just missed out on a pro contract through lack of experience or they might have had a bad season and they need to find rugby. As a pathway it’s hugely important,” he said.
“There are examples of guys who have been at Gloucester who needed more game time and they signed for a championship team and got minutes week in week out. It’s crucial. It’s great how Hartpury have worked their way up the ranks and I was a massive part of that nine, 10 years ago. It’s great to see where they are today. A lot of years’ work has gone in.
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“The Championship is hugely important for the game and the more money you can pump into something like that to help those sides to keep progressing and raising the standard of the league the better really.”
Gloucester, though, are naturally Savage’s priority. He hasn’t featured in Johan Ackermann’s recent selections: his contract is due to expire this summer and there have been rumours of a switch to Japan for the soon-to-be 30-year-old.
But the club’s current Premiership buoyancy – they’re in third place on the back of four wins in the last five, the latest coming last Saturday versus Wasps – has him hopeful a first semi-final appearance since 2011 is on the horizon for a league founder club starved of success.
Only four clubs – Bath, Wasps, Leicester and Gloucester – have spent all 32 seasons in the top flight, but whereas the other three have shared 22 titles between them, the Cherry & Whites are still searching for their breakthrough silverware.
“It’s so tight,” said an excited Savage about a play-off race that has just five rounds of fixtures remaining. “We’re taking it one game at a time and just focusing on that – that is all we can do.
“It’s all in our hands at the moment and we’re not resting on our laurels. We are putting the work in at training and know there is still more growth in this side towards the back end of the season when we hope to be where we want to be.
There's simply no stopping @JakePolledri from that distance ?
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) March 24, 2019
“It doesn’t matter whether clubs are lying first or in 12th, anyone can beat anyone this year so you need to be near your best every week because if you do have a drop, you have to make sure that dip is not too big and you can still grind out the result.
“It’s fine margins. I remember that year with Laurie (Fisher in charge) and we were on the wrong end of an error, a tactical mistake or a refereeing decision. That could have made a difference that season but we have taken our learnings and are reasonably happy with where we are at the moment. We just need to keep knuckling down and keep grinding out the results. If we do that we will be in a good spot at the end of the year.”
Not playing while he is fit and ready to contribute is an usual situation for Savage. He has rarely been injured throughout his professional career, a knock in a pre-season game last August at Ulster sidelining him for a few months similar to a ruptured pec muscle injury in 2013/14.
Other than that, he has consistently been free of injury, an enviable run of availability in a sport where so many players suffer far more serious setbacks.
“I don’t think I missed a Prem game for three seasons at one stage. If you manage to wrack up those numbers you can consider yourself fortunate with how boys are picking up knocks these days. Unfortunately that is part of the game.
“It’s got to be a bit of luck. You can get these freaks accidents in rugby where the body breaks down, a limb gets trapped somewhere. Aside from that I take huge care. I take a lot of pride in how professional I am with my recovery, my nutrition and the way I tackle my training.
“It has a huge part to play and the more you do off the field it kind of keeps you on the field. I’m enjoying the season. The competition to play in the second row is really tough but we’re driving each other and working hard to do the best with the team.”
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