It might seem strange to hear, but a maiden pair of Test caps this June against the Springboks did not stop Thomas Waldrom’s summer from being tainted with disappointment. In fact, the brawny back-rower known affectionately as ‘Tank’ has something to get off his chest.
“My cricket didn’t go too well,” the Leicester Tigers talisman says of his exploits for Kibworth CC’s midweek side, comic grin firmly intact. “I got a golden duck not long after getting back from South Africa and they didn’t pick me again.”
Frozen out ignominiously – as he would want you to believe – Waldrom must have been rather glad when rugby rolled around once more. Indeed, the showings churned out during the current Aviva Premiership campaign have been those of a man fiercely focussed on enhancing an already robust standing in the English game.
Since bagging an explosive brace of tries in a season-opening win over London Welsh, the 29 year-old has been forced to prove his versatility. Posted at openside flanker to accommodate Jordan Crane while Julian Salvi recovered from a broken hand, Waldrom demonstrated some typically rampaging form last month throughout a trio of tough clashes with Toulouse, Ospreys and Gloucester.
Though Leicester were beaten at Kingsholm in the final instalment of that October trilogy to a side featuring Six Nations star Ben Morgan, Stuart Lancaster has handed his precious Kiwi import a significant vote of confidence.
Named at number eight for tomorrow’s Test against Fiji, Waldrom has a gilt-edged opportunity to influence this crucial autumn from the beginning. Dismissing the much-flaunted view that the presence of a breakdown jackal such as Toulon terrier Steffon Armitage would provide better balance, he seems pretty pleased with the look of the loose forwards.
“It is good the way it is,” continues Waldrom, who will have skipper Chris Robshaw and Exeter Chief Tom Jonhnson either side of him at Twickenham, plus Northampton’s Tom Wood waiting on the bench. “There’s a lot of competition everywhere so we genuinely go at each training session like it’s a game. Everybody still helps each other out though – that’s what you want because we’ll be better players for it.
“Stuart trusts the way I play and he wants me to do a job. It’s about going out there and doing my role as well as possible. Sometimes you need the ball to bounce your way to make some metres, but if you work hard, things tend to come off for you and I’ll be doing everything I can to bring my Leicester form into an England shirt. With the best players in the country around me, I’m confident of doing that.”
Waldrom’s astronomic ascent was initially outlined by the capture of the 2010/11 Rugby Players’ Association Player of the Year award, as his unconventionally intelligent running lines and tremendous power devastated defences. At the end of the first year since his arrival at Welford Road from Canterbury Crusaders – where he had somewhat stalled behind the superb Kieran Read – East Midlands adoration was already confirmed.
Via an investigation into his grandmother’s heritage, Waldrom then realised that England representation was an enticing option. Now, there is a chance to be a pivotal cog in the journey to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Recalling some South African shellshock, he certainly knows how not to approach things.
“The last six months has been a whirlwind for me and my first international at Ellis Park in the second match of that series has to be the highlight,” he explains, before heading into some more daunting details.
“Sitting on the bench before I came on taught me a lot, though. Seeing South Africa come out firing like that was a big eye opener [the hosts stormed into a 22-3 lead inside the first quarter]. They were at their very best and just blew us away. Still we learned a lot from that – we will never start that slowly again. The best teams really punish those lapses.
“I didn’t know I was eligible to play for England initially, but, once I found out, I really wanted to push on and play at the highest level I could. Now it’s about staying at the top – we are playing the very best in the world after Fiji, so momentum is key.”
Waldrom’s refreshing honesty is far more valuable than any exaggerated false patriotism. His Wellington accent is undiluted by two and a half years on these shores, but that does not make him any less excited about this series or less willing to fight for Lancaster’s primary aim – to remain within the top four of the IRB rankings by finding at least two wins from three titanic encounters with Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
Certainly, as a December 1 showdown with the world champions slips over the horizon and into full view, few can be more motivated. There has to be half an eye on the All Blacks already.
“Well, there is and there isn’t,” smiles Waldrom, thankfully sparing the clichés. “There’s plenty of rugby to be played before then but it’s there in the back of my mind. If that opportunity came up, it would be amazing. I know quite a few of those guys from back home so it would be really special.”
My last question is more hypothetical still, but too attractive not to ask. Would he have any qualms about unleashing a trademark ‘choo-choo’ try-scoring celebration at Twickenham after crossing the line against his countrymen?
“Oh I wouldn’t hold back,” grins Tank. “You’d just have to celebrate something like that.”
As much as anything else, individuality is what has got Waldrom this far. Evidently – and happily for England – there is no sign of that ceasing.
Thomas Waldrom was speaking at the launch of O2 Inside Line, the weekly behind the scenes show from inside the England camp. For the latest episode and to receive email alerts for each show, visit www.O2InsideLine.com
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images