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'The morning of the World Cup quarter-final I was on my phone gambling literally up until ten minutes before we left on the bus'

By Liam Heagney
Scott Baldwin leave the 2015 World Cup quarter-final with an injury (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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It was just last week when Jonathan Thomas described his ex-Ospreys pal Scott Baldwin as an X-factor signing for Worcester for next season. Prompted by RugbyPass, the rookie Warriors boss began sifting through the many mechanics involving in overhauling the squad he recently inherited, an impending mass exodus offset by some targeted signings such as the current Harlequins hooker.

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The emphasis is on securing quality not quantity. The ambition? To transform a struggling team that is twelfth and last in the Gallagher Premiership and on a miserable 16-game losing streak. In Baldwin, they are bringing in a soon-to-be 33-year-old who knows rock bottom in life – never mind rugby – and how to fight his way out of that adversity.

We’re not talking about the infamous nibble a South African lion once had on his hand, a painful game lodge encounter that would have ended his career but for the skill of a Bloemfontein surgeon whose fast reaction meant a scar was the worse outcome, not the loss of a limb through infection.

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Instead, the unpleasantness that has Baldwin on a Zoom call with RugbyPass is the gambling addiction he went public in February 2020 with, the Welshman courageously letting it all tumble out on a BBC podcast. He never imagined he would be so candid, his revelations resulting in him contacting his father-in-law as soon as the show was over to finally let him know he had an addiction he had never confided in him about.

Fifteen months later, Baldwin sounds a changed man. There is no more hiding, no more secrets. Talking about his issue lifted the burden and while there still are moments of temptation, he now has some powerful tools to help steer him clear of falling prey to old habits.

The backstory of how the 34-cap Welsh back-rower got caught up in something unsavoury is a salutary lesson that should appeal. Here was a Test-playing international earning a generous wage but instead of living the sporting dream, privately there were demons making that existence hellish.

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Baldwin is now in the twilight of his career and cherishing every moment he has left, a family man who is a very different person from the troubled teen that used to think Saturday night was alright for a bit of fighting with a skinful on board, heady excess eventually followed by his surrender to mindless gambling where tens of thousands of pounds were frittered away, the only solace being that he could at least afford his losses as he never fell into debt.

Knowing what he knows now, what advice would he have for the teenage Scott Baldwin if he had his time over again? “I was a nuisance when I was younger,” he explained. “I’d probably say stop being a dick going out. I used to have quite a few scraps and stuff, but the biggest one would be to stay away from gambling.

“Or I wouldn’t say stay away from it because not everyone has an addiction. Some people do it and enjoy it but when you think you have a problem, that is when you do have a problem so it’s identifying that because when I was 16, 17 it wasn’t a problem.

“I did it for fun but then I became dependent on that. I was just dependent on gambling, I thought about it 24/7. As soon as I got off the training pitch I’d be like I’ll go home and see how much I could win now, I have lost this much and so on.

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“And just talk. When I realised I had the problem I just talked because it can have huge implications on your life. As a sportsman your career ends at 35 so unless you are very fortunate or very intelligent you will earn the bulk of your money in your life in those ten, 15 years and it is probably when I came off the podcast I kind of let that go.

“I had held on to that for a long time and I felt like every time I gambled it was chasing losses from previous times and I was trying to win that back and by doing that I was always getting bigger bets, bigger bets, bigger bets. For me that would probably be it, just trying to identify it earlier which I think in the world we are in now people talk a lot more and know each other a lot better – it is a bit easier but it is still a long way to go before you fix it.”

It’s said that travel broadens the mind but an Italian job a decade ago accelerated Baldwin’s gambling dependency before he started to earn the really big rugby bucks. He had been loaned by the Ospreys to an amateur outfit in Milan, a situation where the long hours to fill in between training presented the trap of online roulette which he couldn’t save himself from falling into.

Baldwin gambling addiction

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“I wasn’t on much money but I was in my apartment a lot of the day because all the other players were working and I just started using that to take me through the day. At the time I didn’t really realise it was a problem as it was it’s not affecting my life mentally,” he explained, going on to reveal how this alleged mindfulness through gambling was with him at the very zenith of his Wales career, the 2015 World Cup quarter-final where he started as No2 against South Africa at Twickenham.

“I remember the morning of the World Cup quarter-final. Looking back now it [gambling] was an excuse to take my mind off the game, to take my mind off my stresses and it would be a release for me. I just remember the morning of the quarter-final I was on my phone gambling literally up until ten minutes before we left on the bus thinking ‘oh this is keeping me relaxed’ but actually it was probably the worst thing I could have been doing because consciously or subconsciously I’d be thinking about it 24/7.

“In the end, I had a moment where I won a lot and then lost a lot and I had a chat with my wife about it. Then I got approached by the BBC, someone I know in Wales who knew a little about my issues. He didn’t know much depth about it because I kept it quite personal, but he asked me would I be willing to do a podcast on it because he thought it would help other people so I agreed.

“I never intended to be as honest as I was in that conversation but when I was in there I felt it was the right thing to do and I thought if it helps one person it’s worth doing, but I hadn’t actually told my father-in-law about my addiction. As soon as I got off the pod I phoned my wife and said I needed to speak to your dad and I was thinking the worst.

“I was thinking he was going to disown me, that he is not going to be happy. He had never given me any reason to think this, this was just my thoughts, but he listened to the podcast, phoned me up and said how proud he was of me for doing that.

“Those types of things, my mother ringing me and so on, those moments made me realise I should have done it earlier. Everyone gets to a point where they need to do it and the number of messages I had off current players who had problems, academy players who had problems, ex-players who had problems and it’s all the same thing.

“I’d a lot of players and people as well from outside of the game who said listening to the podcast had given them the courage to speak to their loved ones about it because you do feel like it is just you, it is just embarrassing and you feel like you are a disgrace. If I am honest that is what I felt like, I felt worthless.

“But because it was all out there I didn’t have anything hidden under the carpet. It was all out there and that was a release for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still have moments where I think about doing it, but I know now that I’m never going to win enough to change my life but I could easily mess my life up in the blink of an eye if I was to do it.”

Baldwin was loath to suggest one type of addiction can be worse than another but there has always been something more covert about gambling compared to alcohol or drugs which have more obvious tell-tale signs. It was what enabled Baldwin to carry on for so long undetected.

“There is no addiction worse than another but no one knows your finances anyway other than your wife,” he suggested. “But I remember my wife, it was years ago, it must have been 2015 or 2016, my wife had thoughts that I might have been cheating on her because I would have my phone on when we were watching telly and I’d constantly turn it sideways playing online roulette.

“I’d no interest in going to a casino, no interest in anything like that, it was only online roulette and it was only digital. I don’t know why that got me but I signed myself up to all these companies which say they can stop you betting but there is always a way, there is always another site and there are no real limits on it.

“I have emptied my bank account numerous times without any message or any blocking of my card. There might be a phone call saying is this your transaction, but that is it. I think it has changed now because one of my friends has got an issue and your bank can limit you for online gambling sites which is a massive step.

“I still think there are ways around it but that is a huge step forward in helping the addiction. But again my biggest thing was speaking about it. It made such a difference. It was scary how many people do have a problem who you would never imagine and that is because no one knows. I can remember missing training sessions because of it. I’d be sitting in the toilet, miss a meeting and then I’d go out on the pitch after and so on.”

What pleases Baldwin is that rugby is now a sport that encourages its players to be honest, that remaining quiet and suffering in silence isn’t a badge of honour. He just wishes, though, that some people who are quick to criticise, especially those who claim sportsmen don’t live in the real world, would just jog on instead of being negative keyboard warriors. Baldwin even tweeted the other day, appealing for them not to be a douche.

“I probably came into the professional game when it was in that transition where you didn’t for instance want to say you had a concussion, it was ‘toughen up, get on with it’. Same if you had issues at home, park that when you turn up to training, we need you to train well.

“Whereas now at Quins, it’s really open. If someone is really struggling, it might be a simple thing like I haven’t got childcare, the club is really helpful in that and saying, look mate you just need to be here for this. Don’t worry about coming in.

“You need to be happy at home and I probably first experienced that with Steve Tandy and Warren Gatland. Gats’ motto was especially family first because if you are happy at home and your family is happy you are going to be happy to be at training which means they get the best version of you,” he said, going on to explain his issue with unwarranted criticism about his profession.

“When I see people say you ought to try living in the real world… I saw something with Joe (Marler) about taking a psychologist away with the Lions and then a lot of people in the military were like, you want to try touring Afghanistan, that that is tough.

“Yes, it is tough but rugby is also tough. This is our lives and that is their lives. Yes, we chose to be professional rugby players but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have struggles. We all have struggles, being away from your family struggles, you don’t know what people are dealing with at home. So coming out with ignorant comments like that I find really not very nice.

“You just don’t know what someone is going through. Every single person in the world has their battles, whether they are multi-millionaire or living on the streets. Money doesn’t bring you happiness and someone who has money has different stresses to someone who hasn’t got as much money. It’s all relative really and that is really frustrating for me. That was probably the context in the tweet.”

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'The morning of the World Cup quarter-final I was on my phone gambling literally up until ten minutes before we left on the bus'

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