Nick Tompkins has no regrets about opting for Wales instead of England. Here the Saracens centre opens up on an eventful season
Wales centre Nick Tompkins: “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made”
Nick Tompkins is as much a bundle of energy off the field as he is on it. The speed with which he talks is reminiscent of the turn of pace he demonstrates when exploiting a gap in the defensive line; his enthusiasm is as evident in conversation as when celebrating a try. There’s a real exuberance to all he does.
We opt for an elbow bump as a greeting in these times of coronavirus and decide to kick things off with his verdict on that try. It’s a few days after Wales’ 33-30 defeat by England at Twickenham when Tompkins launched the length-of-the-field move from the second-half kick-off that resulted in Justin Tipuric crossing the whitewash.
It’s been described as one of the great Six Nations tries, but the score at the forefront of Tompkins’s mind is the one he touched down against Italy on his Wales debut. “I saw the gap and was screaming at Dan (Biggar) to give me the ball as soon as possible because I thought the gap would close,” says the 25-year-old.
“It was still there and I just went for it; the rest is history. The feeling going over was amazing – you never get that kind of thing back – and the lads have got into me about the celebration. A double fist pump!”
So what of the incredible try against England? He’s watched it back a few times. Elliot Daly over-chases, allowing Tompkins to run clear, then he fixes another Saracens team-mate, George Kruis, before passing to Josh Navidi – “I did think, ‘What if I dummy and go myself?’ because it was George!”.
The pass was the right option and he kept in support to get the ball back and ship it on to Tomos Williams before being tackled by Manu Tuilagi. He recovered from that hit in time to see Tipuric finish things off.
Reflecting now, he says it was all done in the moment, on instinct. What took a little longer was opting to play for Wales. He represented England U20 and Saxons but was never ‘captured’, meaning he was still eligible for Wales through his grandmother.
Saracens coach Alex Sanderson suggested recently that Tompkins had been overlooked by England because he was adjudged to be too small for Test level, but that was the first Tompkins himself had heard of it.
He had a great experience with the Saxons in South Africa in 2016, under coaches Ali Hepher and Alan Dickens, but there had been no communication over the years from Eddie Jones or the England coaches.
In contrast, he first had conversations with the Welsh set-up last season, while Warren Gatland was at the helm. Things intensified when Wayne Pivac took the reins post-World Cup and he was named in the Six Nations squad after opting for the feathers rather than the rose.
“It was a year in the making,” he says. “It was a huge decision because it could affect me moving away and it was a big challenge, but it’s turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.
“I was talking to friends and family, and they all had different views. Some said I should wait (for England) and then lots said it was an opportunity too good to pass up. I ended up agreeing with that.
“I went to a couple of Saracens team-mates for advice and they couldn’t be more excited for me. Alex Goode has been a really good sounding board and he said, ‘Don’t even hesitate – it’s a great opportunity, do it’. The coaches at Saracens were really positive about it as well. That really helped my decision.”
He admits to being a little nervous coming into camp as an “outsider” but the warm welcome put him at ease, plus he had Saracens team-mates Liam Williams and Rhys Carré to help him settle in. Alun Wyn Jones’s faux pas in calling him ‘Neil’ when talking to Owen Farrell at the Six Nations launch ensured he was quick to receive a nickname too.
Then there was his work on the anthem. He has a lot of Welsh cousins – he talks of fond memories of going to Llandudno Pier with gran Enid – and they gave him a phonetic version to help. “It took me an hour a day for two weeks to learn it and I was still terrible, so I got some pointers off Ken (Owens). I couldn’t come in and not have learnt it.”
The other off-field challenge has been all the extra attention, whether it be in mainstream media or social networking sites. The bigger the stage, the bigger the hype, so he’s had to learn how to deal with it all. In that regard, coming into the environment at 25 helps.
Being at a club like Saracens, he’s seen many of his peers advance to international level while he’s had to wait – impatiently at times! – for a call-up. Yet an increased level of maturity has ensured he made a smooth transition when taking that step.
“I wasn’t ready back then. I wasn’t ready mentally and I maybe wasn’t ready physically. Every path is different. I’m the same age as Maro Itoje and looking at his success, I was thinking, ‘Why am I not making it?’ I started doubting myself.
“Looking back on those years from 22 to 24, it helped me immeasurably. I was blaming other factors and other people, so I stopped doing that and put the onus on what I was doing. I took control, focused on myself and changed my life.
“I realised I couldn’t go on four-week holidays and not do anything! I worked a lot harder on my fitness. I got two proper pre-seasons under my belt and feel that’s the foundation for me getting fitter and stronger. I think things like that have been the biggest difference.
“Now I’m trying to enjoy every second of it (playing for Wales). It’s been brilliant, amazing. I’ve been fortunate to play in Champions Cup games and finals at Saracens where the standard is not far away from Test quality; it’s the pressure that’s so much more.
“The big learning for me is how much noise there is off the pitch – it’s ten times higher than a club game. I feel a lot more pressure to play well. Every little mistake is magnified and it’s hard not to dwell on that but I’ve got to get the next action in. I can’t let moments like the intercept pass (against France) define me; that’s not who I am and I’ve got to bounce back if I want to be the best.”
Tompkins may have made errors in the Six Nations matches that were played – and it’s always harder when you’re compared to someone of such class as Jonathan Davies, for so long a fixture in the No 13 shirt – but he remained one of Wales’ most impressive performers as the team got to grips with a more attack-orientated style implemented by Pivac and Stephen Jones.
He embraced that willingness to keep ball in hand and was one of the big running threats in the championship, ranking third for carries (43) and metres (296) of all players. He also has a knack for taking the ball into contact and emerging still in possession; some have described it as him being wriggly, he puts it down to his “fight”.
When we next get to see Tompkins showing his wares on a rugby field is up in the air due to the widespread postponements. What is expected is for him to join Cardiff Blues on a loan deal next season – one of several such agreements following Saracens’ relegation to the Greene King IPA Championship for salary cap breaches.
For all the highs of starting his international career, there are the lows of the club’s situation. “My overriding feeling is genuine sadness. Sadness that this group will probably split up and I won’t be able to play with these guys again; for some lads this will probably be their last year and this is how it’s ended.
“It frustrates me that people still believe the only reason we won is because of money; you still need collectiveness, you still need love, you still have to put it all in. I get why people are angry, but it’s not just about money otherwise French teams would be running riot.”
This Saracens journey may be coming to an end but his Wales one is just beginning. Midfield competition will increase when Davies returns from injury but Tompkins has already done enough to ensure he’s in the selection mix. Expect to see more of his exuberance on the pitch once play resumes.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.