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Witnessing the collapse of Yorkshire Carnegie changed Tom Varndell

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Chris Lishman/MI News/NurPhoto)

Tom Varndell never experienced the likes of it before. As the Premiership’s all-time record try-scorer, his career had mostly been about scoring and challenging for trophies at the elite end of the English game with Leicester and Wasps, not slumming it at the wrong end of the second-tier table with Yorkshire Carnegie. The trail of destruction was jolting.


Fourteen matches, fourteen defeats, a shocking points difference of -528, 436 points worse than the second-worst team in the English Championship. If there was a sliver of solace it was that the coronavirus stoppage prematurely put them out of their misery, saving them from further savage punishment in a campaign where the dark days just kept on getting darker. 22-66, 13-66, 0-52, 10-62 and 10-52 were just some of the catastrophic scorelines suffered, a brutal existence that never wavered as their last out was their worst yet, a 26-73 shellacking by London Scottish on March 1.

Now ensconced in lockdown life in Leicester seven weeks on from that final run at Leeds, Varndell has had time to draw breath and put it all in perspective. Set to turn 35 next September, he reckons he is all done a full-time player. It’s not that he still hasn’t a turn of pace or a hint of the old swagger. The ex-England international scored four times in his eleven league appearances. But with the whipping boys now dispatched to the shadows of National 1 for next season and his one-year deal expired, it’s time to focus on his fledgeling new career with Elite Player Management (EPM), the Matt Bressons-led agency that has carved a niche since its foundation.

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Mako Vunipola takes on Denis Buckley in the all-prop final of the RugbyPass FIFA charity tournament
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Mako Vunipola takes on Denis Buckley in the all-prop final of the RugbyPass FIFA charity tournament

“That’s me done,” admitted Varndell to RugbyPass. “I made the decision that I wanted to get into sports management two seasons ago and the way it’s going at the moment with how busy I am with this agency stuff, I just don’t think I would be able to give my all to a team. I love the game. I will miss that banter of the team changing room and playing the big matches, but I probably won’t get to play in cup final matches ever again as a player. I’m 34 now and the body, it’s had enough. I think I will play semi-professionally and will carry on training because I enjoy that aspect, but in terms of being smashed and the body aching, that’s me done. The tough year with Yorkshire was pretty much the final nail in the coffin.”

Pointing fingers of blame about the way he is bowing out isn’t his thing. Clear recognition of the various handicaps Yorkshire were trying to cope has taught him diplomacy rather than rancour. “There were times when I was in the car with the rugby coach and players would be phoning in saying they couldn’t do any more because they can’t commit to the travel and the nights because it was affecting their actual work life. It was the first time I experienced that as a professional sportsman where players were having to sack off rugby and training because they have got a job to do and didn’t have that financial support or that ability to get that financial support from the club.

“That was no fault of Yorkshire Carnegie, it was just the situation the club was in. They were losing players because they didn’t have the resources to fund them. Some boys were just getting a match fee. They were doing it basically for the love of the game but even that wasn’t enough because you have to pay the bills, you have to be able to function in your family unit and you have to be able to put bread on the table. It was very eye-opening. It showed how poorly these boys are looked after in terms of their agencies. They didn’t have that support network around them where they could be able to commit to the rugby and also carry out the job they were doing as well.


“You always went out there with the best intentions but I realised no matter how hard we were training we just weren’t getting enough time with each other. We just weren’t getting the numbers. No matter how hard the coaches worked, there were mornings of games where players were dropping out and they were having to call players in from all over. It’s hard to feel any positivity with that. It was hard and there was a lot of dark conversations. It was just tough.

“When you are getting flogged 60 points to nil and you’re trying your hardest and it makes no difference, it’s tough no matter who you are and what experience you had. It was tough but I have to give full credit to all the players and all the coaches. Martyn Wood was there before Phil Davies came in and they have done a fantastic job. They just weren’t given the resources to do the job fully and that is no one’s fault, it’s circumstances.”

It was the sort of grim escapade that should at least stand Varndell in good stead as a sports agent aware of the pitfalls that can exist for lower league players. For 13 and a half seasons, his own career was mostly a Rolls Royce experience. He was adored at Tigers, even scoring the fastest hat-trick in Premiership history as a teenager in 2004 in just his second game. Wasps was equally enjoyable and while Bristol had issues as a yo-yo outfit prior to the Pat Lam rejuvenation, it was another fine place to earn a living.

What followed, though, was a wonder lust of roller coaster proportions. Five games for Scarlets in Wales, five more for French Pro D2 outfit Soyaux-Angouleme. Then came three outings for Championship side Nottingham, an emotional February 2019 Premiership run for Leicester and next to a stint in Hong Kong with South China Tigers. Four countries, five clubs, all in the space of a madcap 15 months before he pitched up in Leeds for one last hurrah. It was a whirlwind that has him well-positioned to assist EPM clients in staying strong during this mentally challenging pandemic suspension of rugby around the world.


The questions have been non-stop the last month or so. “A lot of them are around where am I going to be going next year, or what is happening with my current team, especially the Championship teams. Before coronavirus you had the RFU making the cut in the funding for the Championship so squads had to be cut down and clubs make savings. Some clubs are going part-time and now the coronavirus has hit, it’s even more of a financial burden for these clubs so there are not even in a position to resign boys.

“Normally players at this time of year pretty much know what they are doing next year. Now players still aren’t sure. There is a lot of questions around what options are out there, what clubs are interested, where have you put my CV, am I going to be playing rugby next year, do I need to go and find a job? It’s all about managing those fears really and trying to tell the players we are working, we are trying to put them out to as many clubs as possible, this is what market is opening up at the moment, this is what is not.

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This year has shown how amazing sport is at bringing people together. Different cultures, ethnic groups and beliefs, sport has a way of breaking down barriers. I have been to other side of the world and back again. I have made friends and connected with so many different people. For everyone who has been on this journey with me I thank you. France, Australia, Malaysia, USA, Hong Kong and the UK what a year. Now as I embark on a very new chapter I want to help the players of the present and future by working with Elite player management to create a amazing player welfare scheme to help give players all over the world something to make use of. With your help this can happen. Please read the link below. Spread the message and get involved. #playerdevelopment #sportmanagement #future #rugby #sports #mentalhealthawareness #start #makeadifference #networking #fortheplayerbytheplayer #togetherwearestronger #epm #everybody #unite #wellbeingatwork #teamworkmakesthedreamwork #getinvolved #usa #france #malaysia #australia #help

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“Players just need to know, like with anybody or any industry, so just be honest with feedback. It’s about being honest and making sure players are aware that right now the situation is as it is but we are dealing with this club, we’re dealing with that club. It’s just making they are reassured because everyone is in the same position at the moment. That is what is keeping me busy, managing these players, managing their emotions and trying to keep them safe, making sure boys don’t lose their mind in this situation. There is a lot of panic around… there are so many businesses, not just rugby, that are suffering.

“I do agree there should be a ring-fencing of the Premiership, but the RFU cuts and the corona have highlighted how underfunded the Championship is and how little they actually get. You have players who work very hard. Yes, they may not be Premiership but there are still quality players who are in the top ten per cent in the world in terms of their ability as a player. The number of players that have come through from the Championship and played for England, who are in the current England team, it’s so important and people have to wake up now,” he continued, hoping that how EPM does its business will be a trump card in helping their clients see out this economic crisis.

“I’ve had a long career and one of the reasons why I wanted to go into agency management is to help the next generation coming through, guide them to learn from the mistakes I made. I had agents throughout my career, but you tend to get one agent the same as the next one and I wanted to be a bit different and work for a company that is about the welfare of players, not just sign a contract and see you next season in twelve months’ time.

“I really want to do the all-inclusive sports management stuff and help with the welfare, help with their lifestyle, help with how they manage their money, everything really. That’s really important to me because you do need that guide, you do need that mentor sort of figure in your life whether you’re playing at the top of the game or further down the league. You need someone who will be able to help work with you and help create something special in your career.”

Just like Varndell managed himself. He’s so chuffed that he remains the Premiership’s all-time record try-scorer, 92 tries in 180 top-flight appearances. It’s a mark that will likely fall if Chris Ashton ever gets into the groove at his new team Harlequins – he’s third on the all-time list, six behind the leading Varndell and four in arrears of the retired Mark Cueto in second.

“I’m very proud. As a winger, your job is to score the try. Even scoring for Yorkshire was great, I love scoring tries. To have that record, I wanted to have that record and to finish my playing days as the holder of that record is brilliant. I don’t see it being around for much longer. Chris Ashton might pip it before the end of the next season, but it’s great to have and I will be kicking around the top ten for a few more years. It’s brilliant,” he said, going on to offer invaluable advice to any aspiring poachers wanting to emulate him.

“Very simply, always put the ball down with two hands. Always put it down, and never celebrate before you have scored. The number of times now I have seen a player celebrating before they have scored the try and they don’t score the try, and it always tends to be a crucial try. Make sure that ball is put down and make sure you don’t celebrate before. Poor old Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations is a prime example.

“There was one time (it happened to me). I was playing for Bath academy when I was 16 years old. I celebrated and I put the ball down with one hand. It was raining and I dropped the ball over the line. I didn’t play for Bath academy again…”

Their loss, all things considered.


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