If fans thought the life of a professional rugby player was all sponsorship deals, coffee shop get-togethers and Instagramming, they would be disabused of that notion by speaking to Nick Tompkins, the livewire Saracens and Wales midfielder. For all the glamorous trips to Munich, Miami and Verbier in Saracens’ past, when The XV spoke to the 26-year-old, he was in Chislehurst, Kent, helping the ‘old man’ with odd-jobs.
Tompkins’ down-to-earth, friendly manner is very much in keeping with the way he goes about his business on the pitch; unflashy, unheralded and possessing of a workrate that would make most professionals blush.
A Saracen to his bootlaces, in the wake of the club’s enforced relegation to the Championship, like many other long-termers, he went out on-loan to the Dragons, before being recalled to make sure there were no mistakes as the North Londoners bludgeoned their way back to the Premiership after a one-sided Championship final win over Ealing Trailfinders.
In a reflective mood with 2022 nearly upon him, Tompkins looks back on a period of upheaval and feels older and wiser. There is a visible fresh scar on his cheekbone while we chat, but that is a flesh-wound compared to the deep emotional scarring the Saracens squad has endured since the salary-cap scandal blew up the most successful club of the last decade. So, nine games in, does he think other Premiership sides are pleased to see them back? Tompkins blows out his cheeks and laughs. “I’m not sure if the other sides really cared if they saw us back. I think we’ve almost adopted that Millwall ethos of, ‘no one likes us and we don’t care’. In all truth, there were some things said by clubs and players that were hard not to take personally, so there’s definitely some chips on shoulders and emotions flying about. Put it this way, I don’t think we expecting man hugs from everyone welcoming us back.”
Tompkins certainly wasn’t getting a warm-welcome from Sale’s Byron McGuigan after being tossed and thrown into the advertising hoardings MMA-style, which saw the Sale man sent-off, in a rare skirmish with controversy for the 26-year-old. “I’m a lover not a fighter. I usually wind them up and run away. Anyway, we reviewed that footage afterwards and none of the lads helped me out. I couldn’t believe it.”
As for how the club is coping with the roller-coaster period in their history, Tompkins believes it may take some time to work through. “I don’t think anyone knows if we’re over relegation because the club are still going through it. To say that we’ve all processed it, would be a lie. So many players were affected. Some left the club, some didn’t get contracts renewed. Personally, two of my best mates have left the club in Ali Crossdale and Tom Whitely. There was so much transition and I’m still trying to get my head around it.”
Tompkins says it’s not just the players who are working their way through a tumultuous 18 months, either.
I hate the fact, or I dread that people will look back at everything that Saracens did, and what captain Brad Barritt stood for, and see it tarnished.
“The coaches are trying to navigate it, the staff behind the scenes. We can’t brush it under the carpet and just say, ‘we got a slap on the wrists, got banned for a season and will just move on’, because it impacted all of us. There were players, like myself, who didn’t knowingly break any rules. I didn’t know anything untoward was going on. We’ve all had grief from players at other clubs but we’re going to come out stronger for it.”
One hope Tompkins has is that resentment doesn’t creep in and the achievements of the team will forever have an asterisk against them. “I hate the fact, or I dread that people will look back at everything that Saracens did, and what captain Brad Barritt stood for, and see it tarnished. You can’t buy the culture we created and you can’t take that away from us. If you forget about the medals, I have memories to last me a lifetime.”
The feeling of being misunderstood and pigeon-holed is one that irks the North Londoners. Regularly one of the top try-scoring sides in the Premiership, Saracens have a reputation in some quarters of being a club without an attacking DNA, happy to play the percentages and win the arm-wrestle. It’s an assertion Tompkins disagrees with.
“I always find it extraordinary that the stereotype that goes with us is a boring side with a good kicking game. We have a massive onus on attack, playing to the space and expressing ourselves and one of the main drivers behind that is Owen Farrell. With players like Goodey (Alex Goode) and Max Malins, we’d be mad not to. If you start with solely that mentality that you want to beat teams up, you quickly realise you can’t always win.”
Saracens learnt the hard way that trying to exert your physical superiority could end up not with a cigar, but with sand kicked in your face when heading to the continent. “When we started playing the French teams in Europe, sides like Toulon just bullied and outmuscled us. Of course you have to front up, but you quickly realise you have move sides about. We’ve never sat down in meetings and said, ‘we’re just going to kick the leather off the ball’. We try to be expansive but we also recognise you can’t win Championships by just chucking the ball about.”
As Saracens near the midway point of the season with a game against improving Worcester Warriors, they lie in second place, leading to Tompkins’ giving the side a positive appraisal. “I think we’d give ourselves a solid B on our mid-term report. Before the last two games against Sale and Exeter, I think we were really pleased with where we were at. We’d come back from the Championship, not let our emotions drag us down and been pretty clinical. In 2022, we need to make sure we go up a gear. Overall, I’m pretty bloody happy.”
I’ve grown up with Maro and see him as a normal bloke but when you hear about the Roc Nation’s tie-up and buzz around him, I smile, because he’s a big brand now. That should be celebrated no matter what
After their season in penance, Tompkins thinks it is makes sense that relegation has been suspended until the 2023-24 season. “Only Ealing can really come up from the Championship because of the stadia requirements. If you look at Bath, it’s so tough for them right now but at least they know they won’t lose all their best players because they won’t get relegated. That allows them to rebuild. I hear the arguments about teams getting lackadaisical and lazy because they have nothing to play for but the good outweighs the bad. We need our sport to entertain, grow, sell more tickets and build better stadia. You know give families a better day out.”
The need for rugby to expand its frontiers for the betterment of the game strikes a chord with Tompkins who shares the changing room with one of the rugby world’s biggest stars in Maro Itoje.
“I’ve grown up with Maro and see him as a normal bloke but when you hear about the Roc Nation’s tie-up and buzz around him, I smile, because he’s a big brand now. That should be celebrated no matter what. He is only paving the way for other players to help the game grow. Any other player who thinks he’s too flash is coming at it all wrong and doing themselves a disservice. That sort of elevated profile just gives the game more exposure. I agree with the ‘no player is bigger than the team ethos’ but that’s for the club to manage. Off the pitch, we need to celebrate everyone’s individuality.”
Tompkins himself has seen his profile grown in recent seasons with his late granny Enid, who hailed from Wrexham, allowing him to earn 14 caps with Wales since making his debut in February, 2020. His call-up came as a great surprise and his capture was akin to a John Le Carre novel, with clandestine, almost undercover meetings. “It all started when Paul Turner spoke to my agent. He was working for the WRU in talent ID over the border and tipped off someone in the Welsh management. There were talks for a year before Wayne Pivac took over from Warren Gatland. We first met at a train station and it felt very top secret. Then we met at an airport, where I met Stephen Jones as well. It was at that point I thought they weren’t pulling my leg and they actually might want me. It all happened so quickly. I thought because I’d played for the Saxons, I’d be ruled out but because of my gran I had a chance. Looking back, it could not have been a better decision.”
Tompkins had a breakthrough 2020 Six Nations campaign, and despite a few ups and downs, is now an everpresent in the squad, where the opportunity to line up in front of 74,000 fans is still a novelty. “To be honest, I’m only just starting to get over that imposter syndrome but I’m getting more and more emotional as time goes on. I can usually see my family during the anthem and even my brother is crying. Having the family come down to Cardiff is becoming a tradition and they are thrilled because they see how good it has been for me. The Principality is hands down the best stadium I’ve ever played in.”
I feel excited for the Six Nations and want to put down a marker and stamp my authority on the Wales shirt. That’s my biggest aim. I’m desperate to go to France in a World Cup
After finally welcoming back fans this Autumn, Tompkins was satisfied with his outings for Wales against South Africa, Fiji and Australia, where he scored a controversial try in their narrow win. Two wins out of four was deemed ‘par’ for Pivac’s injury disrupted squad. “Personally, I felt fit and was happy with my form. I know we weren’t perfect but we nearly beat the World Champions, beat Australia and we scored some great tries against Fiji. We came together as a squad and we’ll have a bigger pool of players as a result. It was fantastic to see Taine (Basham) having a brilliant Series and Christ (T shiunza) making his debut. He is twice the size I’ll ever be and he’s just 19.”
With the Six Nations just weeks away, Tompkins knows it is time to kick on. “I want to put down a marker and stamp my authority on the Wales shirt. That’s my biggest aim. I’m desperate to go to France in a World Cup. I used to laugh at the other internationals when they went off for Test duty, I’d say, ‘off to earn a bit of extra cash is it?’ but Test rugby is an absolute car crash on your body.”
The conundrum for many is where to play Tompkins, who can play with a 12 and 13 on his back. Ever the team-man, the Kent-born native is unfussed where he plays. “I genuinely don’t care which number I have on my back. At Sarries I think I get the most joy from playing 12. Maybe that’s come from Brad (Barritt), that desire to carry hard, put the hard graft in and be able to play a bit. Wales is a little bit different because the international game is faster-paced. You need to be fleet of foot, carry more in the wide channels and use your footwork. Personally, I love the differences between the roles I’m asked to carry out for Wales and Saracens.”
A shade under 6ft and tipping the scales at 14st 7lbs, in old money, Tompkins, would, on-paper, be pretty robust, but in this era of super-sized midfielders, he feels that his size can count against him.
“A big frustration of mine in Wales is because I’m not in that 110kg Jamie Roberts mould that I don’t fit that 12 role but I like to believe I’m physical enough and bring a different aspect to the role as a ball player. I’ve had a battle with that all my life but Saracens they’ve put their trust in me. You’ve got to look past the size and look at the impact made on the field.”
After his short-stay in Newport with the Dragons, there were suggestions that Tompkins was looking heavier and more sluggish, a stark comparison to the hard-running livewire we’re seeing this season with Saracens. The centre accedes that it was part of a planned weight-gain. “The Dragons and the WRU did want me to put weight on but it wasn’t all good weight, especially during the lockdown,” he says with a wry smile. “I’ll be honest, I did not feel myself at all. I wasn’t fit enough. I didn’t feel electric. When I got back down to my usual weight I felt more myself. It was a useful lesson – not to get fat!”
He rued his stint in South Wales for a multitude of reasons, but also took a lot from the experience.
“I’m upset and frustrated I didn’t get to play in front of the Dragons crowd at Rodney Parade, that would have really helped, but I loved the guys. Take Aneurin Owen. He is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He still messages me to see how I’m going. I have no regrets, but it did remind me how much I missed Saracens. I missed my friends and family who are in London and it gave me a renewed love for the club where I feel trusted. It made me realise that you should never take the decision to leave lightly.”
The dyed-in-the-wool Saracen will hope to repay that loyalty today. Watch our Worcester.