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'There was one kid that told me I was rubbish, it was good to hear'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Jason McCawley/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

You’d think the last thing a professional rugby player would want to do on his day off is talk rugby yet there was England and Northampton back-rower Lewis Ludlam last Sunday afternoon, sat in the BT Sport green room and waiting to make a live TV studio appearance from Stratford reviewing all the weekend’s Gallagher Premiership action on the Rugby Tonight programme.

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The previous afternoon’s derby hadn’t turned out as planned for the Saints captain, his team painfully coughing up a 21-10 advantage to lose 21-41 to Leicester in a capitulation that included the ignominious situation of having to briefly play with just a dozen players after three yellow cards backed-up into each other.

Amid the bruising Northampton submission, Ludlam was last seen dump tackling Nemani Nadolo without the ball seven minutes from the finish in the lead-up to another Tigers score. It’s always sweet to put any exceptionally big unit on his backside but it was unfortunately small beer in the grand scheme of a Franklin’s Gardens pasting from Northampton’s near neighbours.

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“He didn’t have the ball, I think that’s how I managed it,” quipped Ludlam to RugbyPass when asked how the juddering collision between a 113kg England forward and a 123kg Fijian winger felt. “I always want to be in amongst it, especially physically, tackling and imposing myself.

“I feel like in this Northampton team I get loads of opportunities to carry but the defence side of things and wanting to hit people, put people on their arses, is something that has been a work-on, something I have really been trying to improve. Yes, there is (satisfaction in a tackle like that). It’s a good feeling, but I’d rather he had the ball.”

It would have been understandable if Ludlam – chatting 24 hours after his week was so publicly ruined on the field of play by the 20-point Northampton loss – was grumpy, blunt and standoffish. However, that was never the case throughout an enlightening 30-minute RugbyPass chat that was the precursor to him switching into a snazzier shirt and shooting the TV breeze with Lawrence Dallaglio, Austin Healey and Martin Bayfield. He even performed a useful making-metres-after-contact drill with some grassroots players.

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The reason for all this refreshing approachability? At the age of 26, Ludlam has become very aware of the bigger picture, that rugby is a financially challenged business that needs to grow its audience. One of the prime vehicles to do this is to have top-end players find their voice, showcase personality and make a complicated game way more attractive and inclusive than it currently is.

A regular game-free Sunday afternoon would have seen Ludlam take the girlfriend out for brunch, get in the pool and sauna for some recovery and then – if he could bear it – watch back the previous day’s Northampton match later that evening. However, when the BT Sport invite landed, he didn’t hesitate to say yes and scarper down to London to help promote the sport.

“When you get the opportunity to try something new I’m always keen to get involved in it,” he explained. “When the opportunity was presented to do this I thought I’d take it with both hands. It’s a chance to switch off from Saturday and recharge the batteries because next Sunday is another big challenge against Harlequins and we have to be ready to go again emotionally and physically.”

There was no hiding post-game last Saturday despite the devastating manner of the derby day loss. Type Lewis Ludlam into a Twitter search and a number of pictures appear with parents thanking the Northampton captain for taking the time to mingle with youngsters at the match who scored selfies with the Saints No7. “As players, if you want to grow the game you have also got a responsibility to engage with fans,” he said. “They are the people paying the money, putting money in our pockets every week.

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“The first thing we can give them is performance. We didn’t do that so we spent even more time taking pictures, talking to people after, making sure they do have the access to players that they don’t have in other sports so that they do want to come back and get involved in the scene, that they have an emotional connection to the team, to us as people as players and as a club as well.

“That is more important. I can’t sit here complaining about the structure of the league or sit here complaining that rugby has got no money and not do my part to help grow the game as well.”

With kids often having no filter when meeting their heroes, what was the most memorable thing said to Ludlam? “There was one kid that told me I was rubbish which was good to hear. I see him about a fair bit. On social media, you see all these comments and people hiding behind phones, iPads, whatever and tweeting about stuff.

“But when you actually chat to fans and they say, ‘Listen, I don’t think this was good enough’, it’s good to hear because they are the people who want to say it to your face, who have actually – like me – got a deep emotional connection with the club. So for them to express their concerns, it’s a nice thing to hear because you know they are emotionally invested as we are as players.”

Northampton stalwart Ludlam fell into rugby by chance 19 years ago. He had followed his dad to the local football and boxing clubs but his mum suggested he find something where his father was less of an influence. “I hadn’t watched a single minute of rugby before I started playing, didn’t know where to watch it, didn’t know about any rugby teams. It wasn’t until I went to my local rugby club in my bright golden Nike boots, my football top and shorts and started chucking the ball around that I started to love the game.

“Dad was my football coach and I used to go to the boxing gym with him as well but mum was, in the nicest way possible, ‘Well, you need to do something that your dad doesn’t have so much of a hand in’. That was at the time England won the World Cup in 2003. I was always a physical kid so rugby felt like an obvious option. I took to it straight away.”

The values he noticed reeled him in. “You can go from clattering each other on the pitch to having a bacon roll in the clubhouse afterwards and it’s the same guys. You didn’t get that in football. I felt like football matches on a Saturday as a nine, ten-year-old, it got hostile between parents, parents arguing with referees, parents shouting and running on the pitch. In rugby, you just didn’t get that. It felt like more of a community, a family and something right from minute one, right from the first training session, I felt involved in straight away.”

And yet, despite all this treasured sociability, rugby now finds itself at a crossroads emerging from the pandemic. Grassroots playing numbers have dipped and at the professional level, the finances worryingly don’t add up – a sobering experience laid bare by the recent shenanigans at the RFU-suspended Worcester. What can be done to generally fix the mess?

Ludlam Northampton
Lewis Ludlam in action last weekend for Northampton (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“It’s a tough one. As rugby players, all we should have to worry about is performing at the weekend and the only thought I have got for those Worcester lads is they are worried about paying mortgages, have they got food to feed their family, pay heating bills and all sorts. That is my thought.

“I feel like as players we probably need to do more to grow the game but as rugby players, all we should have to worry about is performing on the weekend. Performance makes the game grow, performance gets bums on seats and those Worcester lads are having to worry about so much more.

“Northampton is my childhood club, the club I grew up supporting, so I have a deep emotional connection to this club and where ever I can I get involved and help, I’m keen to do it,” continued Ludlam. “I can’t imagine how someone like Ted Hill feels with Worcester being his childhood club and them potentially being on their final leg. Whatever I can do to grow our club, our game to get involved in the club, I’m emotionally invested.”

But more is needed. “The reality is rugby is a much smaller sport than football globally and in this country and that shows in the way we show characters, the way we get to know our rugby players, our international heroes, there is not the same level of coverage as there is in football which would probably help a lot in growing the game.

“You can walk into the club shop at Tottenham Hotspur and get Harry Kane printed on the back of your shirt. The same sort of culture doesn’t really exist in rugby. We need to do more to grow the game to make sure we are getting to those people that wouldn’t necessarily have rugby in their lives.

“For example, I played football, turned up to a rugby trial at my high school and just six people turned up because people weren’t interested in rugby. That is on us to get the product to people who wouldn’t necessarily watch it and show this is a great game with great values and it is exciting. It’s important. Rugby is definitely at a crossroads in that respect and as players, we are trying to do more in that area.

“The country loves football. You grow up around football, I grew up around football. It’s a religion for some people. My dad was a die-hard Spurs fan. If Spurs won at the weekend you’d have a good week. If they lost it would be a terrible week. It is a different culture in football and it is hard to compare the two. However, we need to take a few lessons from football, a few lessons from what Formula One are doing with Drive To Survive to grow the game. In rugby, in that space, there is a lot more we could be doing.”

The unfamiliarity of rugby is something Ludlam has been on the receiving end of. All too often, picture captions have said he is Ellis Genge and vice-versa, while last month this pattern of misidentification reached a fresh level when he was introduced as Lewis Ludlow of Gloucester in an interview that carried a picture of Ludlam wearing his Northampton jersey.

“It is what it is, I understand where rugby is at. It is frustrating at times but that is a minor issue in the world of rugby at the moment and I feel like rugby needs to do more in other areas than the small journalism blunders that happen. It’s a tough time for rugby but I just hope that as players, as a community, as a rugby board, we can find a way that helps the game grow, helps the game to be profitable consistently.”

One person who currently has no trouble picking Ludlam out from the throng is England boss Eddie Jones. It was 2018/19 when the forward went from being on the cusp of quitting the game that pre-season due to limited opportunity at Saints to forcing his way into the England World Cup squad. The bolter, though, didn’t have the gas to sustain his overnight success and two years out of the national team meant it was a very different version of Ludlam that re-emerged last February for the start of the Six Nations and then the summer tour to Australia.

“I was probably quite naive in a good way to start with. I came off the back of a breakthrough season. I played just eight times for the club before I started under Chris Boyd, so I just took everything as it came, was just enjoying my rugby and thought whatever happens happens. Post-World Cup I let the pressure get to me of wanting to be selected for England and wanting to perform and I got a little bit lost in that.

“Switching my focus to being a better player Monday to Friday, making sure I am improving every week was a focus that definitely helped. It’s easy to get lost in selection, easy to get lost in big-picture stuff and wanting to win trophies. I forgot what gets you there is hard work Monday to Friday, so putting more attention and effort into that was definitely a positive.

“Eddie was a massive help. He said he could see me overthinking things, could see me worrying about selection, so I worked with him on that and some sports psychologists as well to figure out where these emotions were coming from and why I was feeling like I was. I now have strategies to get the pressure off myself.”

Adding a few confidence-boosting kilos and maturing to become Northampton captain assisted that Ludlam rejuvenation. “2019 I must have been about 107, 108 and I’m weighing 113kgs now so I have put on a bit of weight which I’m definitely feeling the benefit of. I tried to get up to that weight before and struggled to get myself around the park.

“With this gradual increase of weight you learn how to play with it, you learn how to move about and that extra three or four kgs in the contact makes a massive difference, especially carrying. So yeah, that has been a definite benefit but it is always a tough balance between being able to move around the park and being able to add weight to be able to hit people.”

How did Ludlam get the weight on? “Food… and consistent weight sessions. I used to come in on a Monday and my body would be aching and I would avoid the gym. I’d be off doing some recovery or skill work instead, but I now try to push myself through a gym session on a Monday and a Tuesday even when you are hurting.

“Captaincy has definitely changed me, definitely changed my perception of things and how we operate at the club. When you are not the captain it is easy to hide away, you come in on a Monday and take a backseat. But getting the responsibility has given me an extra bit of energy to want to solve things, to come up with solutions and take the others with me as well. That responsibility has brought the best out of me as a player.

“My point of difference has always been high work rate, creating energy and getting the boys going forward as much as possible. High involvement was always something I hung my hat on and I probably missed that a bit post-World Cup year where I didn’t quite understand that and I was looking for big moments in the game, big breaks, big tackles.

“The difference has been to put a focus on those little bits of effort, so getting off the floor, making tackles, getting back in the line. You probably don’t get as many big moments as other players but I feel like I am always in amongst it and that is something I am working on and trying to continue.”

Keeping emotions in check has also been pivotal. “Before I’d play a game on a Monday, get emotional and by the end of the week I’d feel run down because I was playing the game Monday to Friday. Now I feel like I’m trying to stay calm through the week and know on Saturday I am going to be there emotionally.”

Ludlam is back in London this Sunday as Northampton take on Harlequins at The Stoop in Premiership round four and England business then follows as he was included in the 36-strong squad assembling in Richmond for a three-day camp involving training at Twickenham.

He came away from the series win in Australia in July transformed. Jones had loosened the shackles and the legacy – aside from defeating the Wallabies 2-1 – was Ludlam embarking on a post-tour holiday with some players he would have previously viewed as rivals to be cagey and uncomfortable about.

“In Australia we got a large portion of the day off to go and form those bonds so people could go and see the country, to form memories with people. When you play with people that you have these memories with and these attachments it is much easier to find a little bit more in yourself and enjoy it a little bit more so it has been a definite change, a definite shift in culture in international rugby in England.”

Who did Ludlam break the ice with? “In general the Leicester boys. We hated the Leicester boys when we played them and then the likes of Ollie Chessum, Freddie Steward, JVP (Jack van Poortvliet), I ended up going on holiday with them in the summer because you got a chance to spend some time with these boys (with England away from trying to knock each other back on a rugby pitch on a Saturday. So you got to know these people and formed those connections. It has been something really positive.”

  • Watch the next episode of Rugby Tonight on BT Sport 1 this Sunday from 5:15pm as the team recaps all the action and talking points from the weekend’s Gallagher Premiership. Find out more at bt.com/sport/rugby-union

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