Home At the Bottom of a Ruck At the Bottom of a Ruck – Nick French

At the Bottom of a Ruck – Nick French

Nick French is a Former Semi-Professional Rugby Player who Represented England Schoolboys, Havant and Worthing During his Career. During that Career he Battled Injuries and Personal Vices Mixed in with Countless Attempts to make it to the Top. Nick is Speaking for the Very First Time about his Career of 'What Could have Been' that Sadly Ended at the Age of Just 28

Nick French

When I was 11 years old, I was introduced to a new sport just after I started senior school. At that time I was mainly interested in football. I was OK at it but not particularly good and although the boys team I played for were quite successful, I was never really one of the stand-out players.

A journey had started.

I was quite big for my age, this meant in a physical head to head, I would hold my own and often come out on top.

Hello rugby!

Straight away I was seen as one of the go to men to make something happen,and often it did.  It was as if, when on the pitch, I became the centre of attention and this soon spread to off the pitch with my mates as well.  Now who wouldn’t feel great and in love with a sport when that click occurs.

SJC 1st XV 1996-7I studied at St. John’s College in Southsea where I received a very well rounded education which, to my delight, included lots and lots of sport. I was a bit of an all rounder but ultimately rugby was the dominant force for me as a sportsman. Academically, I did the least amount of work possible but enough to survive. It appeared I was a bit better at rugby than I was football. As such, around a year later, I stopped football altogether and joined the junior section of Havant rugby club. Fortunately, there were many of my school mates there and I was welcomed like nothing I’d ever experienced before in any other school activities and clubs. I really need to point out that this courtesy was not only extended to me but every new member which is a testimony to many rugby clubs’ values that I’ve been to.

Havant Rugby Club

Honours followed early as I played county schools for Hampshire a year earlier tha I should have as well as the following season for my own age group also.

At the end of my season as an U15, I toured Australia with the school 1st XV and ended up playing every minute of every game on tour. I was playing with guys 3-4 years older than me and this further helped to speed up my development. The following year with the county U16’s things got even better. I was selected for the divisional trials and ended up playing for London and SE before attending the elite training group of 45 for England.

My first rejection soon followed. 44 players were selected for the final England trial, I was the one dropped. I was distraught but my family gave me so much support that I continued and accepted that it was just not my time.

It was the following Sunday, (the day of the trials) that I was playing for Havant. We won convincingly and I had contributed to the best of my ability.

I remember getting home so vividly. My Mother running out of the house, arms aloft screaming and shouting. I’d been selected to play full back for England A against Scotland the following week. Awesome! We beat Scotland and I also played against Wales A where not only did we win but I scored as well. To this day, after the birth of my kids and getting married, this is the the best and greatest achievement I’ve made. There is nothing quite comparable to scoring in a white shirt with a rose on it, especially if the opposition are in red!

Now this may seem like the start of something bigger but the truth is that was that for that level. Others had caught and overtaken me physically. The training I completed was all based around the teams I played for and structured with suitable and good coaching. Apparently I needed to put the work in outside of that too. Someone had told me but I don’t think I was listening. This was the moment where I believe some of my issues began.

I continued at county level and eventually captained the school 1st XV.  The world was now entering a professional era. At 18 I was selected for the divisional trials, however I was not put on the pitch. I was bitter because just about everyone who got on that pitch was scouted for a big club academy and invited for trials with professional clubs. I was sent home without needing a shower. I was gutted, angry, and had resentment  towards the selectors. I felt they had cost me a professional career. Again I shook this off and got on with it. I still had my A-levels to do after all.

For a short time I drifted, just going through the motions with rugby.  Then, around 6 months before my A-levels, I was asked to train with the Havant senior men’s squad. I think injuries were affecting the squad and they wanted to see if I was good enough as a squad member. A week later I played for the reserves in the county cup and a week after that I made my club 1st XV debut in senior rugby.

I was playing for Havant 1st XV in National division 3 against Redruth. This was semi pro but I can remember playing against the likes of Leeds and Exeter that year. I had a run of 10 or 11 games before being dropped for the final couple of games of that season. I was told I needed to get bigger. I was told  around 3 stone bigger and not lose any pace! I wasn’t surprised, I was now the smallest on the pitch and in honesty and with hindsight, probably out of my depth at that level.

There however is where something else happened with me. It was regarded as the norm to have a few drinks after rugby. Now I had clearly drunk and been drunk before,but now I was classified as a man and responsible for my own drinking. Perhaps, this is my opportunity to actually write down, open up and admit, I fell for the drink and had a problem with it.

I finished my A-levels, got onto a higher education course and played rugby. I was knocking on the door, playing  for the 2’s and sometimes the 3’s. I still got to play for Hampshire Colts but that was the best it got at that time. After all I was still trying to put on weight, not in the gym though, in the bar. I found myself again going through the motions with rugby with no effort.

Then, due to poor results, the coaches left along with some of the players for various reasons. Enter a new coaching team from the local sporting excellence university.  Ian and Tony took over and got me back not only into the squad but also back into the 1st XV. I was enjoying rugby again. They also brought some new players from the Uni. There were others already there who had been telling me of the great standard of Uni rugby they played, as well as the clear enjoyment of the social aspect of Uni rugby. I was hooked and I needed that. More good level rugby and guess what, drinking opportunities too! I may even get some academic achievement too.

I managed to get the results needed and so I was now involved with two sides on a regular basis and both were reasonably good levels of rugby at Uni and with my club. The best bit was I was also getting a bursary from the club to help with my “studies”.  It was great, I was playing, training with mates, a little bit of study and plenty of free time. Guess what, more often than not, having a drink with my mates. It wasn’t always the same ones but whoever was up for a drink at the time I was there.

When Uni finished there was a big gap. I always felt I wanted to travel and in particular I wanted to make the most of my dual nationality as an Australian. I’d stopped playing at Havant as I was leaving in the October, not even 2 months of a season, so I didn’t bother with pre season and left at the end of the previous season. This combined with no more Uni meant I had no club contact or training sessions with mates.  Oh well, I’d just join an Aussie club in the new year for their pre season. I went to Australia with good intentions. I’ll have a few weeks relaxing, I’ll find a job, find a club and get stuck in making my new adult life.  I was in Perth, Western Australia. My Australian family were on the other side of the country but I’d fallen in love with Perth on the school boy tour as a 15 year old.

I relaxed, that meant drink. I did get a job, but it was a bad one. Commission only sales with long hours and no time to commit to a rugby club. I needed to work to pay the bills. It was a sociable job so I was kind of happy in that sense. Eventually I became home sick. I didn’t have really close mates like I had with rugby and I started to feel lonely. I came home with my tail between my legs a bit. I couldn’t face going back to Havant. I didn’t want to be seen as a failure. I was unfit, de-conditioned, and nowhere near able to play at the standard I had previously. Well ,to even get close to that I’d have to do loads of work on my own…….nah, don’t bother.

Worthing RaidersI still had some friends at Uni which was close to where I lived and I’d managed to get some hours at my old summer job to pocket get a bit of money. That was great. And even better, I bumped into my old coach. He suggested I come along and train a bit with the club he was at, Worthing. Now they had been getting better and been promoted a few times in the London leagues. there were some familiar faces there and again I was made to feel most welcome. Before long I was playing regularly and ultimately got into the 1st XV. Promotions followed and so did that feel good factor for rugby. I was doing OK and training with team mates and I was enjoying myself again both with rugby and socially.

Sussex cup finalHowever, it was becoming clear that as the standard increased, I was struggling to keep up. My life style and lack of personal training was starting to show. There were new players coming into the club and the colts coming up were showing good promise.  Ultimately I was starting to become more of a regular in the 2nd’s, no longer the super star or the hope for the future, as I was in the early days.

In my penultimate season I struggled with my hamstrings. I’d previously had some minor injuries in that area but they were now becoming more frequent low grade tears keeping me out for 2-3 weeks at a time. I tried to stay around the teams and assist where I could but ultimately it was for the social. I thought a good off season rest and pre season would do the trick. This was the most frustrated I’d ever been with rugby, caught up with past success and perceptions that I was better than I actually was. I was drinking heavily and frequently. It really came to a head when in a fit of rage I lashed out at a team mate who was also a flat mate. I had no recollection of the incident until the following day. I apologised with, you guessed it, buying him a beer. I felt ashamed of myself. I had never considered myself as a thug but this was not how I wanted rugby and my body to be and I didn’t know what to do.

Pre season went OK and I was picked as part of a wider squad for a pre season evening match.  I remember being at the bottom of a ruck (ironic for the title!) and feeling a sharp pain in my knee. I got up and tried running but the pain continued. Oh well, rest it and get back when it’s ready. The medical teams were great throughout and soon I was back training, I would continue to get niggles after around 45 minutes. I was advised that I would probably benefit from a scan and that potential surgery could help me get a few more years playing but as I was no longer a regular 1st team player and with others more than capable of filling my position, I would needed to do this independently with some support from the physios to help with any post op rehab even though there were no guarantees of getting back to rugby. Maybe I was scared but I didn’t want to have surgery because that could be the end right there.

I continued and did the normal acute injury management techniques hoping that would suffice. By now it was clear that I was very unlikely to get back to 1st XV level and I felt I’d forever be needing to manage this bloody knee. I think it was just before the mid-point of the season and I wasn’t even starting for the 2nd’s. I came on in the second half and my knee started aching after 20 minutes. I had to come off as I just didn’t feel right. After that game I iced the knee with my head in my hands. I’d had enough. I’d accepted that I’d never reach the heights of my expectations ever again and that continuing to try was futile. I retired at 28 years old. Then I got drunk. I stopped going to the club, again, I didn’t want to be seen as a failure.

What happened next was worse. I drank even more as I didn’t need to be sober on a Tuesday night, Thursday night, and Saturday so I drank. By now I was drinking daily because I could. In addition to this there were drugs and it wasn’t for the first time. I did them mainly to assist with being able to drink more and for longer. My personal life was affected as relationships broke down and I grew further and further apart from rugby. I was now a has been. I didn’t know what else to do with myself or my time.

Finally, there was an event for which there is little memory. I was drunk, high and in an unfamiliar environment. The next thing I remember was that I had a black eye, fat lip and grazes all over my face. I still to this day do not know how or what happened. There was no one who I felt able to confide in. I was ashamed I’d let myself get into the state I had.

From a distance, because I wouldn’t let them get too close, my family could see I wasn’t right or happy. My Mum suggested that a good tonic for me would be to revisit Lourdes in the south of France on Pilgrimage. This was something I had done in my late teens in the summer, assisting the sick and handicapped with their faith as well as making great friends socialising. Reluctantly I agreed.

Tonic was right, I’ve never looked back! It was amazing. I went blinkered, and returned with open eyes. There was more to my life, more I could offer others, more I could do to help. Friends who remembered me for who I am, not as a rugby player but someone who played good rugby and I had rekindled my catholic faith which I neglected for the best part of 10 years of my young adult life. What I had done didn’t matter, it was more about what I do in the present and the future that matters. In short, I forgave myself and looked forwards not back. I learnt to know my limits with drink over time with the help of family and friends.

I still go to Lourdes. I met my wife there. We have three wonderful children and I have since retrained and qualified as a physiotherapist. I’m yet to use this skill in sport and rugby. I just don’t feel ready yet and I’m more concerned with making sure my weekends are with my young family. I watch rugby, that will never stop, and my eldest has just started at mini level. His smile, energy and enthusiasm fill me with pride and joy.

Do I have any regrets? No.

My experiences have shaped me to who I am today. The issues I faced on my journey may be similar to others. Perhaps I would consider that the end points of my career showed signs of depression, that I was not what I had been and wanted to hold onto the past. Perhaps in my adult career I had signs of anxiety about the future as to whether or not I’d be able to continue at the highest level I could or that it would end against my will. Either way I didn’t cope with it particularly well. Would I do anything differently? Probably not…….well maybe a bit less drinking and some personal training!

I am in awe of my former team mates and coaches who remain in the game past retirement, they’re my heroes now. The backroom staff, the medical teams, the coaches, the teachers, the referees, the volunteers and the supporters are the people who drive rugby at the grass roots level. I will be forever grateful for the lessons, morals and values rugby has given me.  I hope that I can one day be in a position to help and give back to this wonderful game. In what capacity at this stage is unknown.



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