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Tait: 'I couldn't really run'

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'It was like someone was stabbing me in the back of the heel... I'd sit down for two minutes and limp around to get moving again'

It’s a good job Mathew Tait wasn’t at Welford Road on Saturday. If he had he could have wound up saying something inadvertently about Leicester’s ongoing plunge towards the relegation trapdoor. 

One of his moving on experiments after officially announcing his retirement as a player with immediate effect on February 26 has been taking up the mic and doing some radio punditry. This adjustment hasn’t been easy, so it was just as well he was nowhere to be seen with 14-man Leicester hammered by league leaders Exeter.  

“It’s especially hard trying to remain relatively impartial,” Tait told RugbyPass about his temporary experience in the commentary booth. “I’ve had to keep moving the microphone away from my mouth because I’m shouting, trying to encourage on the pitch.”

Tait is still in and around the club a couple of days a week since pulling the plug on his playing career six weeks ago. It’s a training ground routine aimed at keeping rehab of his damaged achilles ticking along until June when he will probably change tack and go elsewhere.  

Being so close, though, is awkward with results the way they are going. “When you see friends out there, work colleagues and a club you care deeply about who are struggling, you want to be able to contribute more than I’m able to,” he said, hoping an upturn in fortunes can get Leicester out of the hole they have dug into, starting next Friday at Tait’s former club Newcastle.  

(Continue reading below…)

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“Regardless of all the preparation you do there is luck involved in everything in sport, but as players and coaches you have to look at ourselves and be accountable for where we find ourselves. 

“The league itself is just incredibly tight. In all the time I was playing I can’t ever remember it being so tight. But ultimately it’s on the players and coaches. They’re the ones responsible for carrying it around, making sure the victories that are needed are achieved.”

It was last May when Tait made his final appearance in a Tigers shirt, the 33-year-old unable to escape the injury that forced him into early retirement. “I got an issue around the back of my heel and it just got to the point where I couldn’t really run,” he explained. 

“It was like someone was stabbing me in the back of the heel. I’d sit down for two minutes, try and stand up and I would have to limp around to get moving again. The treatment and the rehab we did it ultimately wasn’t working. The advice was given and the decision made based on that.

“It [the heel] is not as bad as it was since I had the op. I’m still quite stiff in the morning time trying to get out of bed to get myself going. Once I’m up and moving around it’s not too bad.”

The difficult bit comes now for Tait – what to next do with himself? He’s far from sure and candid about how rugby players exist in a dressing room bubble far removed from the grind of a regular working life. In limbo, he hopes he will make the right choice and can move on seamlessly enough. 

England’s Mathew Tait is tackled around the neck by New Zealand’s Richard Kahui in 2008 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“It [retirement] is sort of the elephant in the room, as soon as you turn 30 everything starts to hurt that little bit more and you take a little bit longer to recover from. I was always proactive. When I was playing I’d be out meeting people, trying different things.

“The whole thing has come probably a year or two sooner than I would have liked and anticipated, but it’s very, very rarely in sport – particularly in this sport – that you go out on your own terms. 

“I’m very fortunate I managed 15 seasons, which is longer than most. The hardest thing is there is so many institutionalised behaviours you just get used to doing. You’re told where to be, what you’re doing at certain times, are on a timetable every day and every weekend is based around feedback, feedback on your performance and what you need to improve. 

“All of a sudden not having that day-to-day initially was quite nice, but now you miss little processes like that. There’s obviously the social side. Just being in and around the group and the collective that is all focused on the weekend, missing that and just the general being around the group, friends you have been there with for the last eight years. 

“Things like that are taking time to adjust a little bit. I’m suspect that is going to be something I will have to deal and learn to cope with moving forward for a long while,” he shrugged.  

“The honest answer is I don’t necessarily know (what career choice is next). I’m sort of generally interested in lots of things and the difficult thing is narrowing that focus. I’m just finishing my masters in sports directorship, the operational off field business side of sport. 

Vereniki Goneva, Mathew Tait, Logovi’i Mulipola, Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi celebrate after Leicester’s 2013 Premiership final win over Northampton (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“I don’t know whether ultimately I’d like to be back involved in sport in some capacity, but I’d like to go out of it as well just to get a different perspective. It’s a little bit of an information-gathering exercise for me over the next period of time, reaching out into the network and talking to people who very kindly offer to meet and share their experiences before I decide what is going to be next for me. 

“A part of being a sportsman is you always have that end-goal of a game or just being better at your craft, that has always been the end-point. For me now it’s working out what the next end-point is, working just as hard to succeed at that.”

Capped 38 times by England and a starter in the 2007 World Cup final, Tait bowed out having playing over 200 Premiership matches for Leicester, Sale and Newcastle along with more than 60 European appearances. No wonder his injury-enforced departure prompted a wealth of warm tributes, kudos he allowed himself to uncharacteristically wallow in. 

“I’m not normally a social media person but the club was very good in putting out bits and pieces. For a day I let myself indulge in it and read the nice comments. I was just really so humbled and blown away. The ones that probably mean most were from players you played with or against because they are the peers you judge yourself against.

“I’m lucky I have a few memories. The World Cup in ’07, just proud of the whirlwind journey. I’m looking back in hindsight with a huge amount of pride that we didn’t necessarily feel at the time because we lost. 

“My time involved with the sevens in my early years, the Commonwealth Games and playing in Hong Kong, those sort of tournaments away from the pressure that comes with playing 15s.

England’s Mathew Tait removes his losers medal at the end of the 2007 Rugby World Cup final against South Africa in Paris (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“Other memories I treasure are winning the league with Leicester and captaining the team in a European semi-final against Racing at Nottingham Forest. Although we lost it was a very proud moment that I got to captain such a great club,” he said, his recollections even drifting back to how it all first started as a youngster. 

Speaking after a Gallagher Insurance Train with your Heroes session at Ilkeston under-10s on behalf of Leicester, Tait concluded: “It brings back memories of my brother Alex and I. We started at Consett and there would be the odd day a Newcastle Falcons player would come to a club we watched with my dad from way back when. 

“These kids have infectious enthusiasm, particularly as they have started doing contact, so they are all mad to run into each other and topple each other. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that wears off after a few years, that you go around trying to avoid the contact rather than trying to beat each other up.”

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'It was like someone was stabbing me in the back of the heel... I'd sit down for two minutes and limp around to get moving again'