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FEATURE Tom Rogers set for lift off with Wales

Tom Rogers set for lift off with Wales
2 years ago

On Christmas Day, 2006, Tom Rogers was ushered into his back garden where, standing on the lawn was a mysterious looking present. Tearing off the wrapping paper with the fevered enthusiasm of a nine-year-old, he was shocked to discover a gleaming, child-sized motorbike underneath. His reaction, much to his father’s dismay, was muted. Trying to engender some excitement, Rogers’s dad wheeled the bike to the field over the road, encouraging his young son to jump on. The child duly obliged, and, after a little cajoling, wobbled uncertainly to the corner of the field. Once he’d rolled to a stop, he dismounted, leaving the bike on its side with its wheels spinning, and wandered back in the direction of the house. 

“I had no interest in it whatsoever,” Rogers remembers with a chuckle. “I rode it for about 20 metres and was like, I’m not getting on that ever again.” Walking past his crestfallen father, Rogers made for the back garden, scooped up his rugby ball, and spent the rest of the morning kicking it up in the air and catching it. A well-worn rubber ball clearly held more allure than a shiny motorbike and the promise of adventure it brought. From a young age, it was obvious where Rogers’s priorities lay. 

You’d think rugby would have been coursing through the veins of the Rogers family, hailing as they do from the small Carmarthenshire village of Cefneithin. Cefneithin RFC may be an unassuming club plying its trade in the fifth tier of Welsh rugby, but it can legitimately lay claim to having produced both the greatest player and the finest coach ever to have emerged from these islands. It was here where Barry John’s ghosting runs were first witnessed; a pitch which now goes by the name of Cae Carwyn James. No prizes for guessing who the famous coach was.

But despite the area’s rich rugby heritage – former Wales fly-half and WRU chairman Gareth Davies is another of its famous sons – the Rogers family were unusually indifferent to the oval ball game. “No one in my family played rugby,” Rogers says. “My parents didn’t know much about it, so it wasn’t until one of my friends asked if I fancied it, that I thought I’d give it a go.” The attraction was immediate, with young Tom completely entranced by the end of his first training session. As he says now, from the vantage point of a 21-year-old professional who will make his Wales debut this weekend; “I’ve played rugby since I could walk.”

The King: Barry John learned his trade at Cefneithin RFC, where Rogers was also schooled. (Picture by Getty Images)

It was this devotion that marked him out among his peers when he advanced through the club’s ranks and into the Scarlets academy. It was there that then Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac’s head was turned by a gangly, callow teenager whose ferocious attitude and commitment belied his tender years. When Glenn Delaney took over as head coach, his back-three cupboard was bountifully stocked, with Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny, Johhny McNicholl and Steff Evans all on the Scarlets’ books, but there was something about this Rogers kid that he couldn’t ignore. “He’s got this ultra competitive instinct,” Delaney explains, “and all the best players have that. I watched him chasing down a couple of balls, or chasing down another player and witnessed that sheer desire to get there first. He desperately wants to win. That’s what the very best have; they’re born competitors.”

It’s a view shared by former teammate, Jake Ball, who knows a thing or two about commitment: “He’s got a huge heart, and you can’t put that in someone. He chases every ball hard, and has an amazing attitude. You can spot players who are going to come through just by the way they carry themselves, and he’s one of them. He’s trained unbelievably hard to get to where he is and deserves his chance.”

That competitive instinct was burnished further when the raw-boned youngster was overlooked for the Junior World Cup in 2018. The U20s coach, Dai Flanagan, became Rogers’ backs coach at the Scarlets and has referred to that setback as a pivotal moment in the young man’s development. Rogers agrees: “I was absolutely gutted that I didn’t get picked and from that point, I flicked a switch. I wanted to prove that I should have been there. It was motivation for me to be stronger, faster, and just … better.”

He may not have travelled to France, but Rogers certainly clocked up the Air Miles the following year, playing all over the globe in glamorous destinations like Singapore, Hong Kong, Wellington and Las Vegas as part of the Wales sevens squad. It was in such places that he sharpened his attacking instincts, discovering the thrill of taking on and beating opponents with acceleration and footwork. 

He returned to the Scarlets a more confident player, with a mission to force his way into an increasingly competitive three-quarter line. And then Covid hit. Just as his star was beginning to rise, rugby was cancelled. There was no longer a stage for him to showcase his skills. During the first lockdown, when we all retreated to our private worlds, Rogers spied an opportunity. “I thought it would be a good chance to put a bit of size on. Obviously, you couldn’t go to the gyms then, so I was looking online constantly for gym equipment. Everyone wanted gym equipment at that time, so I had to fork out a lot of money, but it served me well. I got a good head start to the new season.” 

I’d safely say that the reason he’s been selected for Wales is because of the work Tom did during the first lockdown.”

Glenn Delaney

And so it transpired, that while a good many of us reappeared from the first nationwide lockdown a little heavier and thicker set, Rogers emerged like Clark Kent from a phone booth. Gone was the gangly youthful frame; in its place a rippling, chiselled physique, honed from a punishing regime overseen by his brother-in-law. “He’s a PE teacher at Maes y Gwendraeth,” Rogers explains. “And he was living with me and my parents because my sister and him were renovating their house. He’s got a Masters in all that kind of stuff so me and him would do a programme every day in the garage. Smash it out. He’d tell me what to do and I did it.”

The results didn’t go unnoticed when the season eventually resumed in August. “He was in outstanding nick when he came back,” remembers Delaney. “I saw him and said ‘Tommy, how are you? Looks like you’ve had a good lockdown?’ He just had this big smile on his face; he’s got an infectious smile, and a personality that brings light to a room, and he said, ‘oh you know, I’ve been chipping away’. It was so understated and I was just really proud that he’d taken that decision to get the best out of himself. I’d safely say that the reason he’s been selected for Wales is because of the work he did then.”

The trajectory of Rogers’ career post-lockdown is the very essence of cause and effect. His physical transformation helped propel him into the first team, and his ten appearances this season have pushed him into the international spotlight. Prior to lockdown, Rogers had been limited to six first-team appearances, half of which were in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, and one of which was a pre-season friendly. Post lockdown, he’s notched up ten appearances, all “on merit” according to Delaney. 

“My first few games were an eye opener,” Rogers admits, “and sometimes you feel like you shouldn’t be there, but then you have flashbacks to how hard you’ve worked and you think, yeah I deserve it.”

School of hard knocks: Rogers is tackled by Jason Harries of Cardiff Blues. (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

The game that made the casual fans sit up and take notice was the “miracle match” against Connacht in which the Scarlets recovered from a 33-12 half-time deficit to post a 41-36 victory. Eleven tries were scored that night but the one people remember most vividly is Rogers’ effort down the left-hand touchline. Receiving a floated pass from Johnny Williams, he looked up and conjured a mesmeric side-step before rounding John Porch and scorching to the line. It’s the kind of moment that would stand out in any showreel, and while Delaney still shakes his head in amazement at the memory, he maintains that that’s just one part of Rogers’ armoury “He’s got that x-factor ability, but it’s the bread and butter stuff that impresses me; the high-ball stuff, the kick chases.” 

Delaney refers back to a heroic cover tackle on Josh Turnbull during a feisty derby against the Cardiff Blues, insisting incidents like that are as influential as the jaw-dropping moments against Connacht. “We talk about when he scores tries that gives us five or seven, but that moment there was saving five or seven. Those are the bits that really sum up your character, because there are plenty of players who can finish off a try. You’ve got to have a bit of want and desire to stop one. Those are the little moments that really matter. If people looked at his ability to chase a kick and turn something into nothing, to catch those high balls, to make his tackles, and clean out rucks, doing all the little bits required for a team to be successful, that’s when you understand his value.” 

Rogers admits his sense of self-worth soared when he was selected in the Wales squad. That week he trained with the swagger and confidence of a seasoned pro but he still felt like an excited child when the news arrived. “I was in the kitchen with my mother waiting for the team announcement and struggling to concentrate. Fifteen minutes or so before it was due to be announced I had an email saying I’d been selected. My mother was jumping up and down screaming her head off. She was as chuffed as I was. I’d obviously been aware of the stories and the rumours but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. To see it in black and white was an incredible feeling.” 

That weekend, he was selected as full back for the Scarlets’ final game of the season against Edinburgh. The knowledge he was now on the verge of international honours seemed to elevate him to a higher plane. He scored a try, created another, and cruised to the man of the match award off the back of a consummate performance. “Me setting Kieran Hardy up, and then Kieran setting me up, was brilliant. I remember watching Kieran when I was in Year 8 or 9 and he was in sixth form, so to share the pitch with him now, and to be bouncing off him, is amazing. We’ve known each other since we were really young, so it’s fantastic to share the pitch with him.”

“I was in the kitchen with my mother waiting for the team announcement and struggling to concentrate. Fifteen minutes or so before it was due to be announced I had an email saying I’d been selected. My mother was jumping up and down screaming her head off. She was as chuffed as I was.

Tom Rogers.

They could both be doing so this weekend in a Welsh jersey. Fellow Maes y Gwendraeth alumnus, Hardy already has four caps and a Six Nations winners medal to his name. Pivac has named him on the bench for the Canada game, Rogers selected to start. “I’ve been learning from all the big dogs at the club and it’s been a good season to be fair,” the winger said. “Guys like Sanjay (Liam Williams) and Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny Mac and Steff Evans are always helping me. You couldn’t ask for better players to be training with every day. It’s awesome.” 

The aforementioned game against Edinburgh saw Rogers selected at full back for just the second time in his senior career. Concerned by his lack of experience, he approached the man who’d worn that jersey with distinction for Wales and the Lions. “I asked Sanjay for some advice and he said, ‘just go out there and enjoy yourself. Relax and don’t think about it too much.’ It sounds simple, but that message stuck with me. When you’re more relaxed and not thinking too much about the game, you just do your own thing. If you’re more relaxed, things just tend to open up for you.”

It must all seem faintly surreal for a young man who, just a few years ago, was watching these players on the television in Cefneithin RFC’s clubhouse. “I remember watching Halfpenny and Liam Williams when I was in the club with the boys, and I’d be thinking wow, I’d love to be doing what they’re doing, do you know what I mean? I’d have been playing youth then, and I’d head back after a match with all my mates to watch Wales play, and I’d daydream about being in their shoes. It’s been my childhood dream to play for my country. I didn’t want to do anything else but rugby.”

Now, these “heroes” are his colleagues. His first experience of Wales camp was up in the north of the country, and while he remains awestruck, he admits it’s not all glamour and five-star hotels. “The first few days were nice, but it started to rain on Wednesday when we had sea recovery so that wasn’t particularly nice. Sea recovery in Colwyn Bay in the rain. Just in our budgie smugglers; straight in, five minutes, lovely. We only had to go up to our hips, thank god. I’d have died otherwise.” 

Rogers used to watch Halfpenny (above) on TV – on Saturday he will line up beside him for Wales. (Picture by Ian Cook – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Rogers may be wandering around camp with a sense of wide-eyed astonishment, telling me with a fan’s sense of wonder that Jonathan Davies is an “icon of world rugby”, but his humility is countered by a steely ambition. “My aim – 100% – is to cement a place in the squad over the next few years. I’m learning a lot through Steve (Jones), Wayne and the boys here, but my ambition is ultimately to play for the Lions. That’s my top goal, if you get me?” 

It pays to look beyond the limits of your horizon, and Delaney can already envisage a bright future.“I see a lot of Ben Smith in Tom Rogers, a lot of Liam Williams, and a lot of Leigh Halfpenny. But he’s his own man. The thing that stands out with those guys, who I’ve had the great pleasure to work with, is their work ethic. They’ve all got their point of difference. Ben is an unbelievable counter attacker, Sanjay is the self-styled bomb defuser, and Leigh an unbelievably brave defender. Tom’s point of difference is probably his ability to beat anybody in a phone box. But he’s also got the same desire to work hard that those guys have. Those guys are always top of the yo-yo scores, always high up on the speed scores, high up on the power scores in the gym, and that’s the bit that no one sees. We all see the end product on the field, but it’s the hours behind the scenes that make the man and make the player.”

It’s not just rugby that receives hours of his attention. In an age in which rugby players are often accused of squandering their down time on games consoles and social media, Rogers has displayed an admirable entrepreneurial spirit. In addition to his rigorous home gym regimen, he’s used the past 18 months to grow his burgeoning business, y Bocs Coffi. During lockdown, when cafes were boarded up and closed, the sight of Tom’s converted horse box rolling up to Parc y Scarlets and dispensing coffee to his thirsty teammates was a joyous one.

I see a lot of Ben Smith in Tom Rogers, a lot of Liam Williams and a lot of Leigh Halfpenny.

Glenn Delaney.

Rogers says the business can be a welcome distraction from the demands of professional sport, but for the next three weeks at least, rugby will be the sole focus. Training has been hard so far, and a “level up” from what he’s used to, but as an attack-minded player who can cover wing and full-back, he thinks he has the right attributes for this new generation of Wales players. “My bread and butter is attack, and trying to get one v ones. Getting my hands on the ball is what I thrive on, what I get excited about. You can already see in training how much quicker and more intense it is, but my experience with the sevens last season has served me well. That intensity is what my game is all about.”

And as for the number on his back? “I think in this day and age, wing and full back are pretty similar positions. It’s like a pendulum; they all work together and I’m more than happy to play either but if I had to pick, I’d want to play fifteen. You get the ball in your hands a bit more at full back, and get more opportunities to counter attack. That’s what I want; I want as many touches as I can get in the game.”

It’s that desire to be continually involved that’s convinced Delaney of Rogers’s potential for a long career at test level. “The absolute test match animals compete and win all the little micro moments. Look at someone like Alun Wyn Jones; he’s been the greatest competitor and wants to win every moment. Maro Itoje is the same. And Richie McCaw. He won every breakdown he competed in. And Tom’s starting from that position where he’s a ferocious competitor, and I don’t think that’ll ever disappear. We want guys like Tom to be putting the Welsh team in match-winning positions. He’s already got that competitive gene, and the job of the coaches and players around him is to continually put him in situations where he can express that.”

Twelve years after rejecting the motorbike in favour of the rugby ball, Tom Rogers might be ready to open the throttle and accelerate forward with a full throated roar.

More stories by Ross Harries

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