I FELT like I suffered from imposter syndrome the whole of my rugby career. Maybe that’s because I was a working-class kid from Sussex who never went to the ‘right’ school and was never part of the academy system.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked rugby, and the 2003 World Cup made a massive impression on me as a 12-year-old. I watched the games with hundreds of people down at Chichester Rugby Club and the whole experience has stayed with me to this day.
Sadly, there are other areas of my rugby life I can’t recall.
I made my Scotland debut against Australia, but I don’t remember a thing because I was concussed shortly after coming on. It’s a tough one to process because it was the biggest day of my rugby career and everyone wants to talk about, as it defines me, but I can’t.
My rise to international rugby was a blur too. When I was 18, I started to do county trials for Sussex and then the south of England, and before I knew it, I’d gone from playing for Chichester 2nds to being signed by London Irish.
As soon as I became a professional, there was a lot more pressure and stress. I’d say I played within myself throughout my career because I didn’t want to make mistakes, which is a real shame when I look back.
While we were always near the bottom of the table, Irish was an amazing life experience because of the friendships I made. Also, I probably got more opportunities there than I would have done elsewhere at that stage of my career.
One season started off crazily. I scored in front of 60-odd thousand at Twickenham in the London double header and that subsequently led to Scotland having eyes on me. Our coach at Irish, Brian Smith, had found out I’d got Scottish ancestry – through my grandfather on my dad’s side – and told his mate Scott Johnson, who’d just taken up a role with the Scottish Rugby Union.
I’m chuffed that I played international rugby, but at the end of the day I’m English, not a proud Scotsman. I know that it’s bad to say that, but rugby is a business and it was an opportunity to get a bit more money and become more established, that’s all really.
I don’t tend to procrastinate over things, I just tend to go for it. Maybe I should have thought about it a bit more because playing for Scotland directly influenced the next stage of my club career, and it wasn’t a happy one.
Losing my English-qualified status led to me leaving Irish and joining Glasgow. I had to go, it wasn’t my choice, and I was in a terrible place personally. My career was littered with concussions and that led to some pretty bad mental health. When I was at Glasgow, I didn’t really turn up as the player I could be; I didn’t want to play rugby anymore, the joy I used to get from rugby wasn’t there.
Just before I left my SRU contract, I had a bad incident. I was taking opiate painkillers and drinking quite heavily and I ended up falling down the stairs and fracturing my skull. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend was going to send me on loan to a Scottish Premiership side, but I’d already told my agent I wanted out and there was an opportunity to go to Saracens as they needed cover for the 2015 World Cup. I didn’t play much in the six months I was there, but it was amazing to be a fly on the wall in a season when the team won the double.
I am really glad that my career ended that way, and it changed my mentality a little bit. My mental health is an ongoing battle though; I have good days and bad days. Concussions changes your personality.
Compared to the heights of being an international rugby player, I am now living a very normal life. The working-class world I live in, being a painter and decorator eight hours a day, can get a bit suffocating after a while but you just crack on, don’t you?
– as told to Jon Newcombe
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