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'I hate talking about people being retired, it sounds terrible'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Dean Richards had a candid confession to make after spending some time at his Newcastle media briefing on Thursday talking about the sad retirement with immediate effect of England back row Mark Wilson earlier this week. “I hate talking about people being retired, it’s as though you have written him off in his life. It sounds f***in’ terrible,” he said.

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It was Monday when Wilson, a member of the 2019 England World Cup final squad, called it quits at the age of 32 following a horrible season in which he had knee surgery and made just a single club appearance, a brief cameo off the bench in last month’s Gallagher Premiership loss to Gloucester. 

There was dressing room emotion when the news broke. “Most of the boys knew (it was coming) but there was upset. It’s one thing to sort of half-know and then another it being confirmed,” outlined Richards to RugbyPass about the long-serving Newcastle flanker whose future plans are unknown although he currently has the No6 Coffee House in Ryton.  

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It was just before the 2021/22 season started in September when it emerged that Wilson needed an operation and his return took longer than expected, the back-rower only finally coming into Newcastle’s selection plans for the recent January 29 game at Kingston Park. 

Instead of that return to play confirming a successful comeback, however, it was instead the nudge that left Wilson knowing it was time to step away and admit defeat after countless hours of injury rehabilitation.  

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“His knee had been grumbling for quite some time and we sat down after one of the games recently and he said that he went to go on the pitch, he had warmed up on the bike and he just struggled, his knee locked out on the pitch and he was limping around. It [Retirement] didn’t come as a surprise at all, to be honest with you. He has had a lot of problems with it over the last few years.”

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How did that Richards conversation with Wilson unfold? “It has been a conversation that he and I have been having for quite some time just in terms of his own welfare. This wasn’t just a current, immediate situation that you look at, you look long term as well and you look at what they are going to be like in ten or 15 years’ time.

“I wouldn’t want to have anybody to have to walk around in the way that I do at the moment or some of the older players do. What you advise and what you say to the players is sometimes based around your own personal experience and it is just opening their eyes to what options and opportunities are there.

“Ultimately you leave it up to the player to make their own decisions on that unless it is something completely obvious and they shouldn’t be playing which would be a complete danger to them.”

It was this time last year, when Wilson was part of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations England team, when Eddie Jones described the flanker as a “fighter”, someone who had fought his way through against the odds to forge a successful rugby career via the university route. He went on to play a central part in the Newcastle built up this last decade by Richards.

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“The whole group has been very tight over the last ten years and even with Mark away we have still fought and fought,” said the Falcons boss. “He is one of the boys that have come through in the ten years and been part of a small group of boys that have been around for that period of time.

“They set the standards and culture within the group and fighting to the last, the nth, has always been the reason we have stayed where we have really in terms of staying in the Premiership apart from the year after we finished fourth, but there were other reasons behind that.”

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