Blade Thomson recalls a “whole cocktail of bad things” in the autumn of 2018, a maelstrom of unbearable grief and perilous injury that stopped the huge back row in his tracks. First came the sudden and awful death of a close friend at home in New Zealand.
Thousands of miles away with the Scarlets, he couldn’t make it back across the world at short notice. He had long chats with Wayne Pivac, his then coach, and resolved to play in the huge derby against the Ospreys that weekend. It was a bruising affair and Thomson had a telling say, cutting down Alun Wyn Jones in the last throes of a 20-17 victory. At full-time, the emotion poured out of him like a river in spate.
“One of my best mates had passed away and the timing was all wrong, I wasn’t able to get back home,” Thomson told RugbyPass. “There was no point in me missing the game. I just thought I’d go out and play. I always think about him, always.”
Sport pales into insignificance in this context, but rugby soon had a different pain in the post. A brain injury torpedoed Thomson’s impending Scotland debut, the knock-out blow suffered, ironically, at Murrayfield against Edinburgh a week before the autumn internationals.
“I was so close to making my Scotland debut and it was not ripped away, but it just didn’t unfold like I thought it would. I had just been named in the autumn squad and then it didn’t go to plan. There were very tough times during that period and leading up to that there was some stuff that was just not going right. When I got knocked out, that was it, it didn’t help.”
The months that followed were desperate. Headaches were relentless and debilitating and Thomson wondered if he would ever be able to pick up a barbell without the searing pain. In those days, retirement became a very real possibility. The tattooed Kiwi had suffered at least four previous concussions and has since spent more time out of the game after copping another. Eligible for Scotland through a grandfather from Wishaw, he fretted that his shot at Test rugby was gone.
“All the time [after the injury], I thought, that’s me done. The talks about retirement were because I wasn’t progressing at all. For sure there were dark days but on the flip side of that, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if I was to go down the retirement route, I was happy to go and do that if needed. If not, there were always people saying, ‘Look, we can still try this or that’. I didn’t really feel backed into a corner. I always had options on both sides.”
It took ten months for the head to come right, for Gregor Townsend to finally lay hands on the snarling, barnstorming forward with sumptuous footballing skills and a destructive streak that he had long craved. Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay bestowed upon Thomson his debut jersey before the World Cup warm-up match against France and the awesome significance of what he was about to achieve struck him like a freight train. He went on to play three matches during the ill-fated campaign in Japan.
“I got over the hump and finally was able to pull the thistle on. I was just hugely, hugely grateful. It was just surreal; it was a long, long journey to get to that point. I knew it wasn’t over, that was just the start and everyone who supported and got around me to help me get there was really encouraging.
“I was so over the moon that I’d finally, not made it, but finally got into the team and felt like I belonged a little bit. It was just a long time coming and everything that had happened in the twelve months before that, it was just an unreal feeling and it’s one that I’ll never, ever forget.”
With research continuing to link repeated head trauma with a neurological decline, there is a degree of alarm around how later life could unfold. Thomson consulted a neurologist during his long spell out and is doing his utmost to mitigate the risk of more damage. In modern rugby, though, there are no guarantees.
“I have had about six concussions but the one up at Murrayfield really knocked me around – that was the one I struggled to come back from. I’m doing all I can to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I’m working my neck, doing all the exercises I’m being told to do, setting myself up to hopefully be successful and not have any more concussions.
“It’s all moving in the right direction for future players, even though players now sort of have to be the guinea pigs. They’re not holding a gun to your head to go out there and play. We are doing this for different reasons and regardless of why you’re doing it, there is always going to be a risk. It’s tough for us because some of the science is new, but you have got to start somewhere and if down the road it benefits the younger players and their health and safety then I’m all for it.”
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Upfield carry? LQB? Hard parts?? @watty_44 ????. Well that didn't go to plan. Won't be forgetting my first game at Murrayfield in a hurry.????? Thanks for all the messages! ? . . . . . . . #rugby #naptime #scarlets #murrayfield #Wales #Scotland #Kiwi #hardparts #hisshusshoos
For now, Thomson feels unfulfilled. He arrived in Llanelli two years ago to great fanfare with a scintillating highlights reel, but those concussions have limited his impact. He hasn’t played since Boxing Day. An Achilles problem meant he was a late withdrawal from the Scarlets team that made a triumphant return to the Guinness PRO14 last weekend by walloping Cardiff Blues, a result followed by Saturday’s 41-20 win over Dragons which puts them in semi-final contention.
“I hate being on the sidelines and watching the boys go to battle but it’s just one of those things, that’s pro rugby, and a lot of the boys will go through it. The whole organisation has been top-notch, always willing to help out and making sure I’m fine and the people are lovely.
“I just feel like I owe them something, to pay them back for the loyalty they have shown me. I haven’t really shown it on the field as much as I have wanted to. That’s what the next games and the upcoming season are for, to thank them and show them that I want to be a Scarlet.”
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