Name: Tom Palmer
Age: 31 (27 Mar 1979)
Born: Haringey, London
Big – that’s how I was as a five-year-old, so it was only a matter of time before someone took me along to rugby. My family had no involvement in the game and it was left to a family friend to take me and my brother, Elliott, to Barnet Minis in North London. I was five and we were both very boisterous boys, so it suited us. Straight away we played contact rugby. There was no tag in those days and we even had scrums, although lineouts were replaced with a tap.
I played a lot of my junior rugby at centre or full-back. Once my family had moved to Edinburgh, I went straight to Boroughmuir RFC and Elliott, who is three years older than me, also carried on playing through school and university.
Moving North I was put in a class at school with boys older than me (due to the Scottish schools system). That really helped my rugby because I was playing with and against older – and bigger – players.
A swimming pool training session led to my move to lock. On a tour to Canada at 15, we were doing lineout practice in a pool and as I was pretty tall I was being thrown up in the air. Our coach, George Watson, saw this and as I was slowing down a little in terms of playing in the backs he said, ‘It’s time to move into the forwards’.
My chances of representative rugby were hampered by not being at a private school, and the fact that I was a couple of years younger than those in my class. But I was 16 when the game turned professional and I remember thinking, ‘I want to be a pro rugby player’. I knew it was what I wanted to do.
The experience I had going on a student exchange to Otago High School is one that I’d recommend to anyone. I was 16 and I went with another player Malcolm Clapperton, who went back to Durham and carried on playing for Boroughmuir and Scotland Sevens.
Looking back I suppose that it was pretty daunting for a 16-year-old to head to the other side of the world, but I was determined to do all I could to further my rugby career and I knew going to New Zealand would definitely help.
Invaluable is how I’d describe those two years to my rugby education – Richie McCaw and Samoa’s Filipo Levi were in the same school team in Otago! I was offered a contract by Otago after playing for New Zealand Schools, but the offer came in only a few days before I was due to leave and it was too late for me to stay. My dad had already approached Leeds about me joining them. I came home and haven’t regretted it.
I’ll always be grateful to Leeds as they allowed me to combine playing with studying (physics) at university, something I think more rugby players should do.
Now I play for Stade Français, after leaving Leeds for Wasps and London for Paris. I’ll move into my third year next season. The differences between playing for Stade and a club in the Aviva Premiership are small as our coach, Michael Cheika, has such as anglicised view of the game, but living in a different country is, of course, a great experience for me.
Most people would have no idea I’ve been in the England squad longer than almost anyone else – this is the 11th season since my first call-up.
Patient is what I’ve had to be since being called up by Clive Woodward in 2001. I always had belief and it has been quite frustrating at times, but now I’m getting my chance and a good run in the team. I believe I have to prove myself over and over again in every match to keep my place. Being on the outside for so long has taught me that and for me, nothing is ever good enough.
I’m loving my time in the England squad, but John Wells keeps me grounded, pointing out a few things I’ve done wrong in a game. That’s the way it has to be.
Did you know? Tom is part of an elite band of players who won their first England cap as a National One player, when at Leeds Tykes. He also spent part of his childhood in Kenya and represented Scotland at U19 and U21 level. Also, Tom’s England debut came as a replacement v USA way back in 2001.
This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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