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FEATURE No doubting Tommy

No doubting Tommy
4 months ago

Maybe there’s something in the water in Pencoed, just outside Bridgend in south Wales, which compels the locals to tell it as it is and call it as they see it.

Rewind to Scott Gibbs, one of the town’s most famous sons, standing outside a Ninian Park dressing room in 1999, clad only in a towel around his waist and offering his controversial ‘men against boys’ verdict on Swansea’s 37-10 Welsh Cup final beating of Llanelli that afternoon.

Four years earlier Gibbs had returned home for a short visit after his switch to rugby league. He had just stepped off a train and was walking over the crossing on the way to his father’s house when a man in a van, evidently less than impressed at the then youngster’s defection from union weeks earlier, shouted over to him: “Why don’t you fuck off back to St Helens?”

At least Gibbs knew what the chap was thinking.

Unsurprisingly, Tommy Reffell is not one for evasions, either. Three years into his time with Leicester Tigers, this writer asked the product of Pencoed RFC whether he had any thoughts about declaring for England if the Red Rose team management were to approach him. After all, there might have been a temptation for a young player to leave his options open. Others before him had done as much, and the odd one has taken the same approach since. But the gent on the other end of the phone that evening was having none of it. “I’m Welsh,” he responded. Nothing more needed to be said. There was more chance of temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius being reported in Hell before Reffell would opt to pull on anything other than the red jersey at Test level.

Tommy Reffell
Tommy Reffell was arguably the best player on the pitch in the England v Wales fixture (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Back then, some still doubted he would prosper on rugby’s biggest stage. “He’s not big enough and doesn’t do things that set him apart from the rest,” one respected former regional player reckoned. How wrong can you be? These days, Reffell is increasingly acknowledged as a world-class No. 7, close to being without peer when it comes to turning over opposition ball. With a mindset that doesn’t seem to accommodate fear, he poaches possession that most other sevens would think twice about going for, lifting his own team and frustrating opponents. There’s a case for feeling his work address should be formally recognised as Harm’s Way, so much time does he spend there. But it’s the part of his trade that he appears to relish most.

In the game against England at Twickenham in round two of the Six Nations, he impacted the match with a series of key interventions, among them the brilliantly executed turnover that stymied the hosts near the Welsh try-line as some spectators were still settling in their seats. Had England scored then, the narrative of the game could have been entirely different.

What I particularly like is that he’s been able to show there are two sides to his game. Of course, he’s very good over the ball and can tackle, but he can also handle and carry. We played rugby league when he was in school and Tommy was very good at it.

Simon King, Reffell’s PE teacher at school

Reffell helped himself to another steal as the match wore on, while he contributed a match-high 14 tackles and in attack featured twice in the run-up to Alex Mann’s try. A stone-cold certainty for man of the match, then? Not in the eyes of the chap calling the award. Maybe in years to come lexicographers charged with framing a definition of the word ‘bizarre’ will reference the decision not to officially fete Reffell for his efforts at Twickenham. Let’s deal in serious understatement and say it took some understanding.

No matter. The former Wales U20s captain has begun this Six Nations on top of his game, starting with a compelling show against Scotland, when he pilfered opposition ball on three separate occasions. “Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I’d say if you were listing the top five players of the Six Nations at this point, Tommy would be among them,” said Simon King, PE master at Pencoed Comprehensive School when Master Reffell passed through.

“He’s been outstanding.

“What I particularly like is that he’s been able to show there are two sides to his game. Of course, he’s very good over the ball and can tackle, but he can also handle and carry. We played rugby league when he was in school and Tommy was very good at it.”

Tommy Reffell
Reffell showed some gumption to stick around at Leicester Tigers and prove he could thrive alongside world class players (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

King has stayed in touch with Reffell since the boy left for Leicester Tigers at the age of 16. “He hasn’t changed a bit,” said the ex-Pontypridd, Cardiff, Aberavon and Neath team boss, who these days is a Welsh Rugby Union level three coaching assessor.

“He has no airs and graces and I just think there’s a lot to admire about what he’s done. He went up to Leicester as a teenager, not really knowing anyone but having the courage of his own convictions and backing himself to make the grade in a new environment. It’s unusual for a Welsh kid to do that. But Tommy went for it, and he hasn’t looked back.

“He’s definitely been helped by coming from a lovely family. They have good values and are really nice people. I can’t speak highly enough about them.”

If it’s a plus to keep feet velcroed to the ground, it also does no harm for a sportsperson to treat fate’s highs and lows as just the same. Reffell faced his own challenges on that front after returning from Wales’ tour of South Africa in 2022, a trip that saw him excel. An injury the following autumn saw him head back to square one for the next Six Nations, with Reffell starting just one out of five games as Justin Tipuric and Jac Morgan were favoured in back-row selection alongside Taulupe Faletau.

The good thing about Tommy is he’s level-headed in terms of his emotions. I know he was a bit frustrated at certain points last year, but he just gets on with it and tries to control the controllables.

Scott Baldwin, former Wales hooker

The fair-haired lad from Mid-Glamorgan bided his time while perhaps bearing in mind Warren Gatland’s long-time advice to those who play under him: “If you throw your toys out of the pram and act like a dickhead, you aren’t going to be around for too long.”

It wasn’t easy, but, good things tend to come to those who wait and that has proven the case for TR7.

Tipuric’s retirement from Test rugby meant others moved up the openside queue, while the injury that has kept Morgan out of the Six Nations meant Reffell had his chance for this Six Nations. Patience and perseverance have been rewarded.

Scott Baldwin, who was part of Wales’ 2023 Six Nations squad, said: “The good thing about Tommy is he’s level-headed in terms of his emotions. I know he was a bit frustrated at certain points last year, but he just gets on with it and tries to control the controllables.

Tommy Reffell
Reffell has added ball carrying to his already superb defence and breakdown work in this Six Nations (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

“He’s just a great, down-to-earth bloke who’s exceptionally good at rugby.

“It’s been good to see him doing so well.”

King added: “Jac Morgan has received a lot of attention in the press, and rightly so because he’s a very good player, while I’ve always waved the flag for Tommy.

“I just think Wales are fortunate to have players like those two in the mix.

“With Tommy, he just wants to play rugby. If you asked him to play a third-team match on Saturday, he’d be there like a shot. He’s a village boy at heart and has a huge love for the game and all that it involves.

“He’s still in contact with his old mates at Pencoed, and my guess is he always will be. It’s the way he is.”

If you’re asking whether Wales could accommodate Jac and Tommy in the same team at some point in the future, I’d say ‘yes’. I see them as potentially being similar to Michael Hooper and David Pocock for Australia

Scott Baldwin

Wales, of course, have other flank options in the shape of Taine Basham and the impressive Mann while Harri Deaves, playing alongside Tipuric, banged in a performance for the Ospreys against Ulster last weekend that had ‘don’t forget about me’ written all over it. For a young flanker, playing and training in the same group as Tipuric must be close to being the best classroom of all, with the certainty being that Deaves will benefit, and so will Jac Morgan, another of Tipuric’s Ospreys team-mates.

Can Reffell and Morgan play together in the same back row at Test level?

“The first thing to say is there are a lot of really excellent young players coming through and competition will be good,” said Baldwin.

“But if you’re asking whether Wales could accommodate Jac and Tommy in the same team at some point in the future, I’d say ‘yes’. I see them as potentially being similar to Michael Hooper and David Pocock for Australia.

“Accepted, they are not the biggest players, but Jac, in particular, is really powerful and Tommy showed against England he could carry.

“The way the game is going may suit them because their stature is good as they have that ability to drive through tackles and people can’t hit high any more.

“Of course you need lineout athletes in the second row, but I think Wales have options there with the likes of Daf Jenkins, Will Rowlands and Adam Beard, while in the back row Aaron Wainwright can jump, too. If you have three of those guys in the team, you are in a pretty good spot in terms of your set-piece.

Jac Morgan Tommy Reffell
Wales are lucky to have two backrow players approaching world class status in Jac Morgan and Reffell (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/Getty Images)

“The height element may not be so important for flankers if you have two locks who can win ball and perhaps a No. 8 who can do the same.”

This weekend, Wales need Reffell to be at the top of his game to stop Ireland operating with the devastating one-second rucks that can ruin an opposition’s defensive plans. Mann will need to come to the party, too, along with anyone else who fancies his chances of doing a job at the breakdown.

Even then, it will be tough, with there being arguably no bigger challenge in  rugby right now than the one Wales will face in Dublin on Saturday.

But Wales’ No. 7 will set about it in his own way.

Those who once had questions about him have long since been supplied with answers.

There’s no doubting Tommy.

Really, there never was.

Comments

2 Comments
T
Turlough 142 days ago

I don’t think that Wales understand the enormous pressure that Ireland are under for this one.
Irish fans expect payback for every jibe, every niggle, every condescending comment, every trick: from Steve Fenwick twisting guys heads the wrong way around 45 years ago, taking sneaky throw ins with the wrong ball, from Liam Williams injuring try scorers ….. All this needs to be put right on Saturday. Massive ask…..

J
JAMES 142 days ago

Hes been class for us (tigers) for a few seasons now ! has in in the fantasy since day one as he’s a turnover machine

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