The Saracens and Wales centre is playing with a new-found maturity and freedom
The lightbulb moment that helped Nick Tompkins reach new heights
A little over two years into his reign as Wales coach and already Wayne Pivac has started nine different players at centre. Nick Tompkins, the former England age-grade player who qualifies for Wales through a Wrexham-born grandmother, is pretty much a constant.
Unavailable last autumn against New Zealand, he played at 12 against South Africa, was parachuted in at 13 against Fiji after an injury to Josh Adams and then retained the 13 shirt against Australia, scoring a critical try that had Wallabies boss Dave Rennie seething.
Tompkins was deemed to have knocked the ball backwards when slapping down Tom Wright’s pass and was able to scamper away while defenders froze around him. “What was strange is that none of the Australian players even tried to run me down,” he says.
If shifting between 12 and 13 is unsettling for a player, Tompkins handles it well, helped by many years at Saracens when he would fill in as required after illness or injury struck. As the 27-year-old concedes, the differences between the two positions are subtle.
“In general phase play you find yourself swapping around anyway,” says Tompkins, who will miss Friday night’s match against France following concussion.
“But it’s different in terms of the team. So for Saracens (at 12) it’s very much a Brad Barritt role where I’d get a lot more opportunities to carry off first phase or maybe be the link player where I pass the ball out the back to the ten. You get a lot of involvements that way and it can be difficult at 13 for Sarries to get involvements.
“But for Wales at 13 I get different types of touches; you might get a couple of carries off first phase, you might not, and you get a lot of out balls trying to take people out on the width. It’s subtle changes but it can have an impact. For me, the more involvements I get the better.”
The issue may now be academic because he has nailed down the 12 shirt in this Six Nations and is yet to dip below excellent. He made 19 tackles in trying circumstances in Dublin and showed at Twickenham, with his attack stats, that he is every bit as important for his country as he is for his club. Last weekend, in Saracens’ top-of-the-table Premiership clash against Leicester, he made two try assists but also demonstrated a power that might surprise people.
When Jasper Wiese carried in midfield, Tompkins drove him back. When Tompkins carried in the build-up to Vincent Koch‘s try, he shoved aside Harry Potter, went through Tommy Reffell and brushed off George Martin. “Head and shoulders the best player on the pitch, defensively and in attack,” said Lawrence Dallaglio, when awarding him Man of the Match.
Rugby has been Tompkins’s world ever since he was a three-year-old trying to get involved with his older brother Alex’s team at Kent club Old Elthamians. Remarkably, he was a flanker until the age of 16 and at that stage he still couldn’t pass off his left hand.
“Playing back-row all those years helped my tackle technique, my jackalling, my choke tackle. It had a huge impact on my development. And it had an impact on my passing. Because I wasn’t as good as normal 16-year-old centres would be at passing, it made me work every day. It ended up giving me a strong pass and a confidence in my pass.”
When he was first picked for Wales, Alun Wyn Jones famously called him Neil by mistake. The nickname has worn off among team-mates but not so at home – as a recent present, his auntie gave him a mug with the word ’Neil’ on it! Mum Debbie and dad Andrew, a head teacher and retired graphic designer respectively, are hugely supportive.
“I tell them, ‘You don’t have to come this weekend! I’m on the bench, have a weekend off, guys!’ My family, my friends, I couldn’t ask for any better, they’re always there, always with me. For the autumn games, as I was singing the national anthem they were right in front of me, I could see my family all linked up singing. It was really moving.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Tompkins regards Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am as the benchmark for centre threequarter play. “They have such consistency and continuity, they know each other inside out,” he says. “Defensively they put teams under the squeeze. They chase hard and do the little things that not many people care about, and they do them really well. The New Zealand boys, when Rieko Ioane plays at 13 he’s an absolute freak, as a running threat he’s ridiculous. But I’d put de Allende and Am at the front because of their game time together.”
The Tompkins clan can expect plenty more visits to the Principality in the years to come. Test rugby has accelerated Tompkins’s appreciation of depth perception and ability to read a defensive line. He is more adept at identifying a tight forward who can be exploited, at seeing whether someone is flying up too fast, at drawing a man and putting a team-mate into space.
He was once accused of over-thinking the game by Alex Goode and Tompkins nods at that assessment. “I agree with Alex. It comes with time and maturity. It was almost like a lightbulb moment, like ‘Oh, I don’t have to force this game, I can just let it come to me’. The more I let go and freed myself up, the less I tried, the better I was.
“As a rugby player you can have a hundred things going through your mind, ‘What’s the right thing to do, is that the perfect picture?’, and if you start thinking about that you’re already a step behind because you’re not doing it instinctively. If you let go and stop thinking then it doesn’t really matter if it’s the right call, as long as you go through with it 100%.
“Look at a player like Semi Radradra. He might not do the right thing every time but whatever he does he does it 100%. And it shows because he beats people, he’s just decisive and he’s on top of his game. And that’s what the best players do. They do it instinctively.”
It’s a knack that Tompkins is well on his way to mastering. Former England prop David Flatman is part of the player’s ever-growing fan club.
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“He is causing people so many problems,” he told WalesOnline. “He’s a reasonably big bloke who plays like a massive bloke. He has a mindset which makes him a ferocious ball-carrier.
“He’s been ridiculously effective for Saracens. He does the boring stuff really, really well. When he has to make a hit, he is nailing people and when he’s had the ball his leg drive has been brutal. He is a difficult specimen to deal with.”
This is an updated version of an article from the February 2022 issue of Rugby World.
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