Running out first in front of an 80,000-plus world record crowd at Wembley to mark my 100th appearance for Saracens was a moment in my career that will stay with me forever. For about five seconds, I was out there on my own trying to take it all in.
Thankfully the occasion back in 2011 did not get the better of me and I had one of my best games, winning turnovers and making dominant tackles.
I got a fair bit of Press on the back of that and started to get talked up as a possible England openside. At the time, the laws suited relatively small and athletic sevens like myself, Dave Seymour, and Jake Abbott. England were also in a bit of a transitional period and blooding new players. I think if ever I was going to get my big chance that was my moment. Unfortunately, I dislocated my knee and missed the summer tour. I also have myself to blame because I probably did not treat the injury with as much respect as I should have done and took things for granted a little too much.
After that, jack-of-all-trade opensides were flavour of the month.
I did play for England at age-grade level and the Saxons, however, competing in two Junior World Cups at U19 level. I was only 17 for the first one in Dubai and playing alongside players who’d already got Premiership experience was brilliant for my development. It was too hot during the day to train so we’d amuse ourselves in the hotel by playing corridor cricket. Chris Pennell had a great technique as you’d expect from someone whose dad played for England, and Danny Care, a brilliant all-round sportsman, flicked balls off his legs for fun.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t the best when it came to hand-eye coordination. I was never the fastest, quickest or strongest at my school but I had a strong competitive streak and a will to succeed. At 15 years of age, when every other kid was going down the park with a bottle of beer, I was getting a bus and a train in and out of London to start training at Saracens for 8.30.
If you’d have written down what I went on to achieve in the game, I’d have bitten your hand off every time! I can only look back with immense pride at everything I’ve done. The way the 2009/10 season panned out was amazing; the Hollywood script writers couldn’t have made it up.
We’d had this big team meeting in Brighton to define our culture and ethos and what we expected of each other in terms of standards. Despite being written off and labelled as boring, we reached the final to give Glen Jackson and Hugh Vyvyan a big send-off in their final game as professionals. Also, Brendan Venter was banned from attending the game. The final twist in the tale came when Dan Hipkiss scored a last-minute matchwinner for Leicester.
I came on as a blood replacement in the following year’s final, where we avenged that defeat. My first act was to attempt a charge down of Scott Hamilton’s clearance. I got a dead leg for my troubles and spent five minutes limping. At one point, I was given the ball in acres of space and was almost one-on-one with the full-back. All I had to do was draw the man and pass the ball to David Strettle.
But I was in no position to run or step and ended up just falling over my feet. That was definitely a career low on what was an otherwise joyous occasion for the club. That dead leg prevented me from going on another Saxons trip as well as partying the night away with my team-mates. I think I was back at home watching TV with my leg strapped up whilst they were all out having fun.
While Saracens will always be my club, Newcastle is probably the place I’d most like to live in. I had the pleasure of doing that for a couple of years after joining the Falcons. I made more friends outside of rugby while I was there than I have ever done.
In terms of on-field achievements, I was proud to captain the club further than it had ever gone in Europe and in the A-League. I also got my one and only Premiership cap as captain down at Bath. We lost to eight scrum penalties and I wasn’t asked again!
I decided to call time on my full-time professional playing days after a frustrating end at Yorkshire Carnegie; so close to promotion but falling at the final hurdle for two successive seasons.
With any personal hope of returning to the Premiership gone, I’ve decided to advance upon my undergrad in Financial Economics by returning to education for a Masters at Oxford University reading Sustainable Urban Development. I’ve not fully closed the door on rugby and as such I’m looking forward to hopefully representing the University side and I’m also considering a few part-time alternatives whilst I study.
At 28, I’d relish the chance to one day regain the heights of my youth and possibly even help give back to the game what the game has given to me.