By David Wilkinson
I chatted with Tommy Taylor last week, in light of him signing for Sale Sharks again, for next season; and his views on playing at the elite level during the Covid-19 pandemic,
Tommy Taylor, currently of Wasps, signed for Sale Sharks last week on a 3 year deal which will take him to 32 years of age. Tommy started his very successful playing career with Macclesfield, along with his brother Jack, in the Mini section, before playing through the teams to be part of a very successful 2nd team, along with Uncle Iain, winning the league and his only silverware to date. After a spell in the 1st XV he moved to the Sale Sharks Academy, playing for the Jets before cementing his place in the first team, as his father David had done in the 1980s. Then aged 19 he had 5 years with the Sharks and was being ‘noticed’ by the pundits and England. He made a strategic move to London Wasps to further his England chances, which turned out to be the right decision.
Tommy had had games for England Saxons and the Barbarians but a knee injury in one of the Baa-Baas games was the first of his serious injuries. He was then involved with the 2016 Six Nations squad as a travelling reserve before winning his first cap against Wales in May of that year. The following year he was selected for the Tour to Argentina, prior to the World Cup, only to pick up another Cruciate Knee Ligament injury while in Camp. The second time around must have been a very low-point and one that his team mate Jack Willis currently faces.
Tommy had this to say about his move back to Sale: “I’m really excited, the Club has had a big change in the past month but definitely changed a lot in the past couple of years. I’ve been away five years now and I’ve loved my time at Wasps, it’s been really good, we’ve got to a couple of finals and played some big European games, and I’ve had a great time here, but this is probably the right time to move back, careers wise, I think it’s really positive, and family-wise as well, I think that everything makes sense”. Tommy and his partner Lucy will be moving North with their young, aptly named son, Archer, who is now almost one and will have the opportunity to play for England or Wales, Lucy has apparently filmed his first steps in a Wales shirt!
I asked Tommy if it had always been in the back of his mind: “Yes, definitely, I grew up watching Sale, my Dad played there, I did, so Macclesfield and Sale are my kind of home clubs. It was so hard to leave, (Sale) but I felt that I left for the right reasons for myself, and for my career, and now it just felt like the right time to go back to my original club”.
There are no guarantees that Tommy will pick up the 2 shirt in the new season at Sale Sharks, the Club already has three Hookers in, Van de Merwe, Langdon and Ashman: “Yes there is competition wherever you go in the Premiership, I’ve got it at Wasps and you move somewhere else and you’ll get it there, it’s kind of what excites you really, getting into a new environment with new coaches, and you’ve got to find yourself again in that new environment, and it’s at a point in my career where it’s probably good for me to have a new stimulus and new motivation – I’m looking forward to it, they’ve got some really good hookers. If you want to win the league, which Sale obviously do, you need competition in all places”.
Tommy said that he was really keen to work with new Director of Rugby, Alex Sanderson, and whilst there had been a lot of changes in the past five years there were still a good number of old boys: “Yes, the likes of, Ross Harrison and Josh Beaumont, Sam James and guys that I know like Hammersley, I’ve been on a Saxons’ Tour with, and J Cooper-Willy who was at Wasps until a couple of years ago, which will make it quite familiar, there are snippets of the old club which will be great and they have a new training ground which is good as well.
I asked Tommy what it had been like getting back to playing rugby after the first Lockdown: “We started training again in the June, Stage 1, which was in groups of six, all socially distanced and then managed to get the go-ahead from the Government to move to Stage 2, which was 3 groups of 15 as we had 45 lads. It then, quite quickly, moved to stage 3 which was full rugby training and gym. Back then we would have, what we still have today, a water-break every 15 minutes with hand sanitising on the pitch with your own water bottle; and then straight into games, no crowds of course. We were Covid tested right from the start, every Monday, and then in January that was upped to two tests a week. Back in November before the final we had a bit of an outbreak at Wasps, which almost derailed our whole final, which was terrible as we couldn’t train for two weeks, we had half a day’s training session the day before which was our whole preparation for the final”.
It showed at the time that Wasps were ring-rusty and their situation was not helped by the appalling weather. Sale Sharks had had an even bigger problem with virtually the whole squad being infected; they were ultimately cleared of allegations of not sticking to protocols; the problem arising from some false negative tests, with two players going back into the squad who were actually infectious.
Tommy continued: “After the final we had three weeks off then a ten day period into our first game of the new season, we would normally have five weeks off then a twelve week preseason. So we had a slow start to the season”. I asked Tommy if he thought there had been too much rugby played because of Covid at the time. He thought that it was both a combination of that, with also lots of mid-week games squeezed in, combined with the
aftermath of the Final. He said that they recently played those first games back on video and that they didn’t compare to how they are now, and that their effort standards were way-off the mark, the lads struggling emotionally; and that without the crowds it’s difficult to get lifted if you’re flat.
With regard to the current Covid situation, Tommy explained that there were certain quarters (Public Health) that had been looking to close the Premiership down, so everyone got together to create their own enhanced protocols: “So now we’re not allowed to celebrate with team-mates on the pitch, and you have to wear masks when you’re on the bench. There are cameras everywhere so if you’re caught not wearing your mask properly it’s an automatic £100 fine”. Rugby players I’m sure find the no celebration rule rather odd as the players might have just finished a scrum where they had been rubbing faces with the opposition. Tommy had this to say: “We played Exeter towards the end of last year and their bench hooker tested positive in the week after the game. They did the contact tracing but it hadn’t take any of our players out, even though there had been several scrums. This apparently is because in a scrum your faces are side-by-side rather than facing each other, the worst place being in the bottom of a ruck”.
On the subject of isolation Tommy explained that because Wasps are now situated in the middle of the country they don’t often have to stay away, although they did for the Bath game earlier in the season which was a night game: “We were able to take-up the whole hotel, so it wasn’t a problem, other than that it’s using your own transport, getting on and off the bus and back home”.
Talking to Tommy about injuries and the recent law changes I asked him about his team mate Jack Willis’s recent injury: “Yes, I feel for him, he had a really bad knee injury about three years ago, luckily it was his other knee, so that’s a bit of a blessing. There’s been a lot of talk about the crocodile-roll and the fact that it is dangerous, but I struggle to think how you can bring a law in to prevent it; you can speak to a lot of Jackalers, and they are fully aware that it’s a dangerous position to be in. I just don’t think that you can make it 100% safe, especially with Jack (Willis), with some of the positions that he gets into. Head shots are obviously where all the focus is at the moment, but in my opinion the no-arms chop-tackle is even more dangerous both for the tackler’s head and potentially ending someone’s career in the tackle”. Tommy’s view was that the players are 100% behind the refereeing of high-shots, but it is a contact sport and that player’s good technique was the key to getting it right.
On the gnarly subject of refereeing at scrum time, Tommy neatly side-stepped my question on how often he thought that referees got it right; but he did say that he was usually 50% wrong – and it’s his stock-in-trade! He believes that one of the problems is that there aren’t any retired front-rows refereeing at the elite level – they couldn’t keep up!
Talking to Tommy about the rest of the season, his ambition, quite rightly, is to win the league, although Saturday’s heavy loss to Leicester won’t have helped. We talked about one of several players on their injury list, Alfie Barbeary. According to Tommy, Alfie is still unsure where he wants to play, back-row or hooker. His play from back-row has been devastating, but Tommy believes that if he can get his basics from set-piece to where he wants them, he can step ahead of a lot of people – it will be interesting to watch him.
Hopefully when Tommy comes North in the Summer, he’ll find the time for a session or two with the lads at Priory Park.