Nick Tompkins says his stunning rise to stardom with Wales has been tempered by sadness at leaving Saracens.
Tompkins, 25, became a revelation during the Six Nations courtesy of a grandmother born in Wrexham, with his perfor- mances leading ex-England centre Will Greenwood to declare him a must for the British & Irish Lions.
However, to make next year’s tour he must leave relegated Saracens and Tompkins told The Rugby Paper: “What Will said is really pleasing because he knows what he’s talking about and I grew up watching him as one of my idols.
“Am I ready for the Lions? I don’t know, but for that to happen would be a dream come true. I just wish I’d had that last game against Scotland because if I’d put in a good performance there, I would have been really happy with my Six Nations.
“Bearing in mind those were my first international games at that level, I feel I learnt a lot, but it’s difficult to say what the future holds.”
Despite being contracted to Saracens until 2022, Tompkins added: “If Saracens carry on with being relegated to the Championship, it will probably mean a decision to play with one of the Welsh regions to keep my standard up so I can keep playing internationals.
“It would only be for a year so I’d return as soon as Sarries came back up, but with what’s happening with coronavirus there’s a lot of uncertainty, so who knows what could happen? If there’s another scenario where Saracens stay up, maybe I’ll end up staying where I am.”
In all likelihood the midfielder will have to go and Tompkins admits leaving Saracens will be a wrench.
He said: “I owe Saracens a lot and there’ll be sadness if this season ends in a bad way without playing another game – it will mean some guys have already played their last games.
“I’m also sad at how some people have tried to diminish the accomplishments of our group. Yes, I understand some rules were broken in terms of money, but you can’t just buy a team of rock stars because otherwise the French teams would be winning everything.
“You have to build a team, cultivate a culture and get buy-in from the players who respect each other and enjoy coming to work. People have used this as an excuse to damn us, which is the saddest part of what’s happened.
“What Saracens have done for me is immeasurable. There was one moment when Nigel Wray and Edward Griffiths got my gran and grandad down from Wrexham to watch my first Premiership game. It was their first visit to Allianz Park and they laid on everything.
“It turned out to be last game my gran saw before she passed away, which made it all the more special. That’s nothing to do with money, it’s just what goes on behind the scenes, but people don’t see that and all they’ve wanted to do is criticise and throw stones.”
Tompkins admits Wales selection came as a shock.
He said: “I always knew my gran was Welsh but after playing for England Saxons in South Africa in 2016, I thought that had excluded me from Wales. But it turned out not to be the case and after Wayne Pivac spoke to me, what’s happened since has been amazing.
“Eddie Jones knew, nothing was done behind closed doors or kept secret. The options were there for all parties and when the opportunity came to play international rugby for Wales, it’s not something you can turn down – and I’m so glad I didn’t.
“I’ve never come into a group where I’m new and felt so at ease or accepted. On my first day, we walked into the gym and on the board were written a few work-ons; mine were ‘get bigger’ and ‘work on your Welsh accent’, so humour made the transition easier.
“Having said that, you’re definitely star-struck, which might sound strange. Obviously at Sarries you play with a lot of very good players, but they’re just the boys you’ve always played with, whereas coming into the Wales camp there’s a bit of ‘wow’ factor.
“Meeting guys like Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones and George North, left, who you’ve watched growing up on Lions tours and the like, there’s definitely a sense of awe. It’s weird but good at the same time and there are no cliques or hierarchies, it all seems very natural.”
While Tompkins will never forget his try-scoring Wales debut against Italy at the Principality Stadium, he rates the trial by error against Ireland in Dublin, where a missed tackle presented Jordan Larmour with a try, as the match that made him an international player.
“I’m actually really grateful for that experience,” Tompkins explained. “I learned a hell of a lot in that Ireland game, it was good for me, and it was one of those moments where you make a mistake and you can either go into your shell or push through it and thrive.
“If I’d been capped two or three years earlier, I maybe would have crumbled in that situation, but you look at the road I’ve been down with Saracens – the failures, the ups and downs of success – and those extra three years have made me a more resilient person.
“You realise that now is the right time, so rather than get weighed down by one mistake – and I made one against France too – you’re able to call on all that experience and by the time we went to Twickenham to play England, I was fine with the occasion.”
After three successive Six Nations defeats, it seems odd to talk of Wales in a positive manner, but Tompkins is convinced Pivac’s side are ready to come good.
He added: “You look at results and that’s nowhere near where Wales want to be, but performances were better than that and the margins were very small.
“That’s frustrating because it felt like we’d been architects of our own downfall, but I take a lot of excitement from that because I know what our group of players can do and how far we can go. It might take time, but we’re going to be a very good team.”
For Tompkins, too, an exciting future awaits, with another trip to South Africa beckoning.