Former Scotland international and Saracens, Glasgow, Leeds and Northampton lock Tom Ryder journeys back to reflect on his career having gone into teaching after retiring in 2016.
ONE of the things Brendan Venter brought in as part of his cultural makeover of Saracens was the need to have a team song that would be sung after every victory.
We were struggling to come up with one, but I remember thinking before a game up at Newcastle that if we won, I’d sing the Tiki Tiki Tonga song. I sung it with quite a bit of gusto which made up for my lack of tuning. Everyone enjoyed it, and it stuck.
We got to the Premiership final against Leicester in that first season under Brendan, so it got sung a lot! They still sing it now. As a Saracens legacy, I’ll take it.
The song actually came from Jim Mallinder. He was my England U21s boss at the 2006 Junior World Cup, and he sung it on the bus, and it was brilliant. It is kind of ironic that I stole it from Jim because he was Saints coach when we beat them in the Premiership semi-final at Franklin’s Gardens, and it definitely wasn’t music to their ears that day!
I moved to Saracens having come through the Leicester academy. Dusty Hare scouted me playing for Newark, which is a fantastic community club, and took me to Tigers. He remains a great mentor of mine, even now that I’ve retired and taken up teaching. It is a bit of a bug-bear of mine that I played 99 games for Sarries but couldn’t get to the 100.
The club I joined was different to the club it is now. It was a team that had a lot of potential and a lot of big names in the squad, but we weren’t really a team as such. Brendan came in towards the end of my time and changed the culture and Mark McCall has taken it on from there.
In my five years there I had something like seven coaches. Steve Diamond was the first, he got sacked, then there was Mike Ford, who’s a good bloke despite what Sam Burgess has said, followed by Alan Gaffney and Eddie Jones, and then there was also an interim coach before Brendan came in and shook things up. As a player, it was sometimes quite difficult to know where you stood: you were always trying to impress a new boss and it was quite difficult to feel settled.
My penultimate year at Sarries was the one where the South African takeover occurred and there was a big clear-out of players. I survived the cull – but only just! I got brought in by Brendan and he said, ‘I’m going to have to let you go’. I challenged him by saying, ‘Why? Tell me any other 24-year-old lock who is starting every week in the Premiership?’ He said, ‘fair enough, you can stay’. It was a strange conversation but one I’m glad I had! I’m pleased I had a year with Brendan, he was an interesting character to say the least.
By the end of that year though, my time at the club had run its course. I knew I needed to move on to try and get more regular game time and I also wanted to explore my Scottish connections (my dad was born in Scotland but brought up near Watford) so Glasgow was the best option.
I won two caps, in the Pacific Islands, against Fiji and Samoa, and we won both. I can visualise Rob Harley charging over for the match-winner in the last minute against Samoa after their scrum-half ran out of the line and left a massive hole. I also played a couple of times for the Scotland A team, and we won those as well, so I’ve got a 100 per cent record in a Scotland jersey. I was also in two Six Nations squads and went on tour to Australia. I am really proud to have played for Scotland.
My journey with Glasgow was very similar to that with Saracens. When I joined them, they were very much a middle-of-the-road Celtic team but by the time I left, they were league winners. Both teams were in a growth period on and off the pitch and got bigger and better. We got to the semi-final one year but, unfortunately, I missed the 2015 final win against Munster due to injury. I experienced success with both clubs, but I was probably more involved in the journey to get there than the actual champagne moments.
I had four good years at Glasgow until back-to-back injuries kept me out for a year and took their toll. I had a knee injury that was difficult to diagnose and stopped me being able to train and play at the same time. It was only when the Scotland doctor, James Robson, took me down to a knee surgeon in London that I got it fixed. Unfortunately, about four or five games into my comeback, I injured a disc in my neck, and lost all feeling in my arm.
It’s a shame those last two years were really affected by injury because, at the time, I felt I was playing my best rugby. I was a regular for Glasgow and named in the PRO12 Dream Team, which was really good, as well as being in the mix for Scotland still.
I think by the end of almost a year out though, Glasgow lost patience with me.
I had a brief spell on loan to Northampton, playing under Jim and Dorian West again, my two former England U21 coaches, before signing off with a season at Yorkshire Carnegie. By then, I was falling to bits and held together by tape. We had a good pack of forwards but, for whatever reason, we didn’t really improve through the season.
The Kevin Sinfield experiment didn’t really work. He is a super professional and a really nice bloke, but it is very difficult to come in and play a new sport. I think we needed a traditional Rugby Union No.10 who could put us in the corners and let our driving mauls do the business.
I still live in Harrogate and shortly will take up a new role as director of sport at Harrogate Grammar after my time at Woodhouse Grove comes to an end. I’ve enjoyed the last few years there as a science/rugby teacher, especially as I’ve been working alongside one of my best mates from rugby, Joe Bedford.
It’s great to get my rugby fix every Saturday coaching the school team. We had a really successful season last year, almost going unbeaten and getting to the semi-finals of the NatWest competition. Now I’ve got the challenge of getting a State school up to the same level, if not better, as Woodhouse Grove. I can’t wait.
– as told to Jon Newcombe