The Kiwi-born No 8 is gearing up for another showdown with Wasps this Sunday in front of a sellout crowd. He reflects on his journey from Lower Hutt to Sandy Park...
With 29 tries in 41 Premiership games for Exeter, Thomas ‘the Tank’ Waldrom has become a more potent finisher than even Christian Wade. The ex-England No 8 leads the Wasps wing by 13 league tries to 11 this season and this weekend the two are in opposition in a match that’s likely to determine who has home advantage in a probable semi-final in May. Here, Waldrom tells Rugby World about a stellar career that started with picking flowers on the fields of Wainuiomata…
I was born in Lower Hutt, a suburb of Wellington. My dad played a lot of first-grade games at first-five (fly-half) for Wainuiomata, and when he coached my older brother Scott, I jumped on top of that. I first played at the age of four. Not everyone could afford boots so we’d all go bare feet on Saturday mornings in the frost, just to make it fair.
I didn’t take much interest in rugby to start with. I’d tackle my own players, or sit at the back of the field and pick flowers. I didn’t take to it straightaway but I always enjoyed being out there.
Rugby is everything in New Zealand. At school even before the bell rings everyone’s playing rugby on the concrete, and at lunchtime it’s an hour full-on rugby touch, and then you’ve got training after school. I was probably playing four hours a day.
Zinzan Brooke was a big driver for me. I enjoyed the way he played. He was a bit different from other people and that’s the way I’d like to be remembered – a bit different. He had the freedom of backing his skills. When he needed to kick it, he kicked it. He was a guy that I looked up to.
Athletics was big in our family as well. I used to travel around New Zealand competing at athletics meets in the summer. I represented New Zealand at shot put, discus and hammer. I had to decide between rugby and athletics at about 17. I’d have had to go to America to do athletics and I was going places in rugby. I was progressing, so I stuck to rugby.
I played in the front row, then at school moved to No 8. I always said that if I didn’t play firsts I’d go back to the front row, at hooker. For some reason I kept making teams at No 8 until I was playing No 8 professionally.
I got picked up by Wellington Academy. We had a coach called Alistair Meacham who gave a core group of us a chance. I had my first game for Wellington at 18.
My highlight with Wellington was winning the Ranfurly Shield in 2008. That was big but we made a lot of finals. 2003 was probably the breakthrough year for me. I got to play the whole season, then graduated to Hurricanes (Super Rugby) in 2004. By then me and Scott had moved on to the Avalon club, after we moved out of Wainuiomata to be closer to our secondary school, St Patrick’s Silverstream.
I joined Canterbury to get more game time. I felt I was playing some good rugby but never got enough opportunities at Wellington; we had Jerry Collins, Rodney So’oialo, Chris Masoe, so my path was blocked. An opportunity opened up at Canterbury after a player (Mose Tuali’i) moved to Japan. Todd Blackadder got in touch with me and I played every game for them that year (2009).
The Junior All Blacks was another step in your career. I thought I might have got close (to that) but they went for another option and I thought if I couldn’t make that I had to move on. The Heineken Cup was a big motivator but the main goal in moving to England (Leicester Tigers) was to play international rugby (he qualified via an English-born grandmother). I set myself goals and I like achieving them.
My nickname started after I ‘tooted the horn’ after scoring a try. One of the papers in New Zealand did a front-page pull-out on ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. Once I scored a try I wanted to celebrate it, it was just a bit of fun really. When I was at Hawke’s Bay I asked if they could play the music over the speakers whenever I scored.
Exeter are very different to Leicester. There’s more ball-in-play time here. It’s more like Super Rugby, which I’ve had a lot of experience in, so I know how they want to play here. Leicester was more set-piece orientated, whereas in Super Rugby scrums and lineouts are just the starting point of attacking rugby. You get the ball and then you’re off playing again.
My first England cap was the biggest thing for me. Setting a goal and finally getting that jersey on my back. It came in South Africa in 2012, second Test. The best thing was being told I wasn’t selected, and then in midweek getting pulled aside and told, “Phil Dowson has pulled out with a hamstring injury and you’re on the bench.” I thought he was joking at the time. It meant I had less time to think about it. I came on just after half-time and my first thought was just to get my hands on the ball. We did quite well to get back into the game (but lost 36-27). It was nice to sit there afterwards knowing I’d achieved one of my ultimate goals.
I have to give Leicester a lot of credit for giving me that opportunity. Some people might say I’m playing better now than I was then. Personally, I haven’t thought about it, I just like being out there and playing. I might sit down at the end of my career and think 2015-16 was the best year I ever had, or next year might be the best year. Right now, I’m just in the moment.
It was nice to get a phone call from Eddie Jones. When he picked his (Six Nations) squad, he said, “You’re going well but I’m going for younger options. We’ve got to look to the World Cup in four years’ time.” He never said the door was closed. We’ve achieved a few firsts with Exeter, like winning at Northampton, winning at Sarries, beating Clermont, so it’s quite nice knowing I can concentrate on trying to achieve a few more firsts with the club.
Premiership rugby is a tough environment. Guys like Dave Ewers, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, the boys who’ve come through the academy, they’re the backbone of our team. They’re building an understanding of what it’s like to play in the Premiership year on year. Now they’ve got England accolades as well. The coaches do a great job for us, Rob Hunter, Rob Baxter and Ali Hepher, they’ve got a good mix of youth and experience, and got the style of play that suits us probably a lot better than it did three years ago because the guys have matured.
I’m a member of Exeter’s Cookie Club. There are ten of us, mostly forwards with sweet tooths. We meet up for a treat every week after the last day of training. One person has to supply the treat. We’ve had ice-cream cakes, ice-cream sandwiches. Dave Ewers made a double-decked chocolate cake with at least 12 Creme Eggs on top.
We had a team outing to Burts Chips in Plymouth. Eight of us went round the factory, got shown how the crisps were made. We tasted quite a few so that was nice. We also had a sausage-making competition, in teams of two. I did a cranberry and turkey but it didn’t go very well. The winner was Moroccan chicken and sesame seeds, that was quite good.
We’ve got a sponsor on board now, Wingman. They do shower gel and stuff but once a month they’ll supply us with a cake – the other week they got us a rocky road brownie sandwich with a doughnut on top.
I’m married to Emma and have two boys, Troy, six, and Kade, four. They play for a local club called Topsham. For holidays we visit Europe as much as possible – we’re going to Greece in the summer.
Phil Dollman and I coach the freshers first team at Exeter University. We play a lot of attacking rugby; we do a lot of complicated moves which I think they enjoy. If you see anything that works, you can use it down at Exeter as well. I enjoy coaching, especially the younger kids, and I’ve passed my Level Two badge.
I’ve enrolled into a leadership and management course at Northumbria University. So I’m studying as well. It’s an online course, two years. I’m not 100% sure what I want to do in future; I might look into rugby camps.
We’ve got so many characters at Exeter. Everyone buys into what we’re trying to achieve. Rob (Baxter) selects people who he knows will fit into that environment. At the end of the day we enjoy our bus rides as well. You can have a beer and enjoy the company on the way home from a game, win or lose. Sit down and enjoy it, then come back to work on a Monday and get on with it. It comes from the coaches down. Rob knows what he wants to do, how the club should be run, and he gets the right people in.
Whatever team I’ve played for, I always match my scrum cap to their colours. So here I have three caps, in orange, black and white. At Wellington I had black and yellow, in Christchurch I had black and red, at Tigers I had a green and a red one. I’m an ambassador for Canterbury and I’m lucky that they help me out.
I took selection for granted at the start of the season. I rested on my laurels too much. I hurt my groin as well, second game in, so I was out for a few games, but I think it was more just not being at the top of my game where I should be. When I got an opportunity I had to make sure I took it with both hands. And that’s what happened, and then you get momentum.
I’ve built a great relationship with Dave Ewers. We hit it off from minute one as a combination. With Don Armand and Julian Salvi, we’ve formed a good back row but you can’t afford to mess up because there’s so much competition now in the squad.
I like to do a bit extra in training on the first day of the week. To get myself ready for the coming week. I like being one of the fitter people, it’s something I pride myself on – being fit and doing all the training. I’ll probably do some endurance running, get my body to tick over. I pride myself on coming to a new team and making sure I create a good impression. That’s what I like to do.
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