Thomas Waldrom: I will never fit the mould of a normal rugby player

By Daniel Schofield

Thomas Waldrom breaks away to score for the Exeter Chiefs. Photo / Getty
Thomas Waldrom breaks away to score for the Exeter Chiefs. Photo / Getty

Thomas Waldrom did not know it at the time but disaster was soon to strike on an apparently blissful Wednesday afternoon. Ahead of the weekly meeting of Exeter Chiefs' Cookie Club, a strictly forwards-only affair, Waldrom is proudly boasting how he has brought out all the stops with his treat: Granny Gothards white chocolate and honeycomb ice cream.

Yet soon after the interview concludes, news breaks on social media that the Cookie Club has been postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. "Cookie club CANCELLED....wouldn't get that in sandwich club #standard #fakeclub #they'reajoke" tweeted Jack Nowell, leader of the backs' rival Sandwich Club faction.


Still you do not get the impression that Waldrom is a man who is prepared to let good ice cream go to waste. The 32-year-old also has the consolation of being nominated this week by his peers for the Rugby Players' Association's Player of the Year award, an accolade he won in 2011, having also been shortlisted for European Player of the Year.

As well as he might be, given that he is leading try scorer in both the Aviva Premiership and the European Champions Cup. Overall his tally this season stands at 19 tries in 21 starts. Not bad for a No 8 who by his own admission is an "unconventional shape". It is interesting to note that two of Waldrom's fellow RPA nominees, George Smith and Andy Goode, a pair of 35-year-olds, also fall outside the prototype of the modern professional. In a game that is increasingly dominated by size and speed, Smith has more miles on the clock than Nasa's Juno spacecraft while Goode described himself as "old, fat and slow," when he was lured out of retirement by Newcastle Falcons.

"A bit like Tom, those guys filled important slots in the teams that they played for," Rob Baxter, the Exeter head coach, said. "They have been jigsaw pieces that have made other things work; the cog in a clock that enables the other 14 guys to work far more effectively. Tom is not going to be that 6ft 6in, 130kg monster back row forward but that was not necessarily what we were looking for. We had one of those in Dave Ewers. It was about filling the roles we needed and that's why he has been so effective."

After equalling Neil Back's Premiership record of 16 tries last season, Waldrom has at least two more games to surpass that tally, starting on Saturday away to Harlequins, when Exeter will be looking to secure a home play-off semi-final. "When we talked at the start of the season the top four was the goal," Waldrom said. "We have made that. It is nice to know that if we play to our potential against Quins then we will have a home semi-final which would be really special."

It would also provide another opportunity for Thomas the Tank Engine to be played one more time at Sandy Park this season. It is a celebration, complete with the action of pulling the steam engine whistle, that he has engaged in since his days at Hawkes Bay in New Zealand and he recently took a trip with his young sons to the South Devon Railway to see his namesake.

"Me and my two boys got some photos taken with Thomas the Tank Engine," Waldrom said. "That was cool. My boys are 6 and 4 so they are slowly understanding what their old man does for a job. They like coming to Sandy Park. I love seeing their smiles after a game, even if we have lost they are happy to see me, which is a change."

Although Waldrom demonstrated a deceptive turn of pace with an intercept try against Wasps in the Champions Cup quarter final, the vast majority of his scores have been from five metres out or closer. Even if those may lack in artistic merit, it is no less of a highly-honed skill. Given how proficient defences are at holding up try scorers from close range, these are no belly flops over the line. Instead, they rely on a high degree of misdirection and anticipation to pick the right angle and opponent.

Waldrom's top five indulgences
Devon cream tea
Mini banoffee pies
Mallowpuffs
Corn Friteers
Burts Crisps

"You have to be aware of what is around you and who is front of you," Waldrom said. "Then it comes down to picking the right moment to go for it. You want to reward the hard work for the guys in front of you. They have set it up and got everything going so you have to make sure you score it."

Clearly his lower centre of gravity works to his advantage in those scenarios. "Physically, his shape does allow him to hold his feet," Baxter said. "A taller, rangier guy could get lassoed and chopped down. You also have to remember that Thomas contributes a hell of a lot around the field. He makes a lot of momentum carries, a lot of good rugby decisions. He is a good link and offload player. Although he is a senior player now, he is still working extremely hard on his game and is one of our very best trainers."

The quid pro quo is that Waldrom is allowed indulgences that would horrify nutritionists at other clubs. "The odd extra biscuit or a couple of jelly babies as he runs on to training is not a big deal to me," Baxter says. Of course that means Waldrom is an easy target for sledges and snide remarks, all of which have long since lost their capacity to sting.

"The thing I enjoy is that rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes," Waldrom said. "I get a lot of stick for not being the mould of a normal rugby player. Personally, I think you have to embrace that. I am not going to be 6ft 4in and ripped as anything because I enjoy having a nice cream tea. I enjoy trying different things. Last week we had a food festival at Exeter Castle. There were 10 of us players and the food was fantastic, I particularly enjoyed a pulled pork burger.

"I know what works for me. That's the biggest thing. People give me stick because I look a certain shape but I know what works for me and the trainers embrace me for who I am as well."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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