Brent Wilson & Tom Calladine, September 2012. Pic: David Baird
So, after last year's play-off place, which saw the side go into the end of season shootout for a place in the Premiership, what are your ambitions for this season? And how are you better equipped to realize them?
Brent: Well we’re pretty disappointed after last season. We wanted to at least make the top four but finished up fifth, so it was pretty disappointing. But now the whole league structure has changed with the playoffs so it will all be on points, so it’ll be more about where you finish the normal season and every game will really count. That’ll mean more pressure rather than guys just making sure they’re in there, then anything happening in the playoffs, like you saw last season with London Welsh, who were real underdogs. But it’s a good to see that a team like that can come through and get promoted. It’s given other teams ambition to push on. All the talk’s been about Newcastle coming down and I think everyone thinks they will be the ones to go straight back up, but if you can get in that top four anything can still happen in the playoffs, so as long as we’re up there our goal will be to be one of those top four teams.
With two professional football teams, Nottinghamshire cricket, and Panthers all already drawing big crowds, could Nottingham really sustain a top-flight rugby team if promotion was achieved this time round?
Tom: I definitely think there's enough interest. Nottingham is a great city, it's a big city. A lot of people from Nottingham will always go over and support Leicester because they’re a Premiership team. But we've got the infrastructure and the facilities to bring people in from further afield, not just from Nottinghamshire, but also from Lincolnshire and Derbyshire.
Does having those Premiership sides in Leicester and Northampton on the city's doorstep make it difficult to compete for rugby fans in the East Midlands?
Brent: I think it could be a good thing, if we went up we'd be playing those teams at home and you'd target those games as being big derby games, with big crowds, I guess. Like Calla says it's pretty popular around the Midlands and you get a lot of support. Nottingham is a big sporting city. Fans here have taken to ice hockey and the water sports, so I think with that and the two universities as well there would be no shortage of people keen to support top level sport. So I think we'd cope with it alright.
Do you think NRFC’s links with Notts County help attract spectators? Or is Meadow Lane almost too big for the club? Doesn’t a couple of thousand people in a biggish stadium feel like less than 1,200 in a small ground that was rammed?
Tom: On the atmosphere front it is sometimes different, but then I think Meadow Lane attracts people as they see us more as a professional outfit. If they were coming and standing in a muddy field to watch us on a Friday or Saturday night under some floodlights, would it have the same impact as playing at Meadow Lane, inside a big stadium where the players run out of the tunnel, where the fans are separated, where you've got a good bench, you can see and you're next to the players and you can get a better angle on the game? I don't think it does any harm.
Brent: I think it's good from the corporate side of things, too. I think if people want to come and mingle and have that Friday night and entertain clients. We've got one of the best grounds in the Championship haven't we, so it always good to have a place like that that you can call a fortress. And if we did get promoted that transition would be pretty easy because you've already got that good base and you're used to it.
So with that small but dedicated fan base you've got, do you ever get recognised when out and about in town? Do any of the boys have stories of encounters with fans, good or bad?
Tom: Errr, people notice your face here and there, probably more Brent than myself. Though me with the younger ladies, obviously, and Brent with the older clientele. But no, even on a game day it’s nice to walk out of the changing rooms and have someone ask for your autograph. It's something that makes you just feel proud and privileged to have a fan that wants to support you and wants to talk to you after a game.
Brent: It's good to get amongst the community, too, because once you build that base up you get players in Nottingham wanting to play rugby instead of possibly going down the same old route and playing football. So it's good to start with the youngsters and get parents bringing them along.
There's still a stereotype of rugby players – certainly in student circles – as people who get a bit lairy when they’re out and about. Is this fair? Do you all engage in a bit of alcohol-assisted team bonding after a big win?
Tom: I mean, we've got a two-pint maximum limit after a game and on a Saturday night. Not many of us really drink to be honest with you. Just a nice protein shake then off to bed usually [laughs].
Brent: I can’t keep up with the youngsters any more anyway. I'm almost ready for bed after some Friday night games! My days of going through the town are quite limited.
Tom: If you've played well you've earned your drink on a weekend, but you don't need to go OTT. Obviously at some universities you get some stereotypical behaviour which gives us all a bad press, but we enjoy our social life as well our rugby time, and we know when it's rugby time it's time to switch on, and then after a game it's time for everyone to relax, whether that's going to see your missus, sitting down and having a drink with your mates, going to see your Dad, talking about rugby, talking about anything else but rugby…
Brent: I think a good thing about rugby is the social side of it. That's what people comment on. They can come to the game and actually have a pint and watch the rugby and chat with the players after, whereas in football it's a different story isn't it?
With the fact that rugby is not as high-profile as football, is it almost a relief to know you can go out and enjoy yourselves without the fear of making front page news?
Tom: I wouldn't mind a bit of press to be honest with you. Or the wage packet!
Brent: Yeah a footballer's salary wouldn't go amiss! I guess if we were to play in the Premiership we'd probably get a bit more interest from that side of things. We'd probably get a bit more coverage in the media, and with businesses in town, and so it's got to be our goal to get that promotion out there, get the fans in and then it's a win-win situation.
Whereabouts in town are your usual haunts, whether you're drinking or going dry?
Tom: There's a mixture of eighteen year olds playing and there's thirty-six year olds playing, like my captain sat here next to me [both laugh]. So you get an array of different pubs and places...
Brent: I don't even know a lot of places in town. There's a crew that are out to all hours...
Tom: The youngsters till four, five in the morning, on the dancefloors, showing people how to do it! And you get the old men in the pubs sat in the corner with a pint of stout.
Brent: I think it's good to get to some of the local places round here. Obviously Castle Rock is one of our supporters too and we had a brewery tour there at the start of the season. I think it's good to get to different places and help out and meet our supporters and get amongst it.
Do you socialise with any of the footballers, Panthers or cricket boys, or watch any of the other teams?
Tom: When we were at Meadow Lane last year we used to have dinner with the football lads, so we used to pass and talk but we're probably not as close as we should be given that it's a stadium we both play at!
Brent: I keep an eye on the cricket. I used to have a neighbour who played for the Panthers and he said he was quite keen to come to our games and I'd like to get along to their games.
There's a long history of New Zealanders at Trent Bridge – Sir Richard Hadlee, Stephen Fleming, Daniel Vettori, etc – have you been down at all?
Brent: Yeah there has been some big names over the seasons hasn't there, and Andre Adams is still there, but I think I've only been to one T20 game this season. But Trent Bridge is definitely a great ground, one of the best in the country viewing-wise, so to have a bit more involvement on that side of things would be good.
Brent, you're still relatively new to Nottingham having signed for the club just under a year ago. You come from the world's most passionate rugby country in New Zealand, so what do you think of Nottingham, both as a city and a rugby city?
Brent: I think it's good; it's got a good mixture. From a sporting side of things it's great to have everything so close: an international cricket ground and two good football stadiums, and then Holme Pierrepont. And someone was telling me that Nottingham is one of the best cities for running in the UK with running tracks everywhere, so it's really a sporting city, and with the universities I think it's got a lot of good things going for it. The town's a good size and everything's quite easy to get around. I've got a couple of kids in West Bridgford and it's pretty handy. So I think there's a lot good things about this area. I was up in Newcastle for a few years and it's a bit warmer down this way [both laugh] which makes things a bit more enjoyable. And with the river, it's a good spot.
Tom, it's a bit different for you. You're from Mansfield and you’ve come up through local rugby and made the grade with Nottingham. What kind of state is the junior game in the city? How efficient are the talent spotting systems of the clubs? Could anything be done to improve the crop of youngsters that the city is producing?
Tom: Not necessarily. There's quite a good infrastructure in grass-roots rugby and a lot of very good clubs around the Midlands area, especially in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire, that have got a good first team, second team and third team, and play junior rugby from colts down to under-8s and under-9s. I mean a lot of the schools are probably a lot less focused on rugby than they need to be, so clubs-wise it's good but a lot of the schools are football-based and don't really look into rugby until later years, like Year 9, 10 or 11 when children have already decided whether they want to play sport or not, and whether they want to play rugby union as their chosen sport. So I'd say club-wise the infrastructure is quite good, but in schools there isn't as much backing for rugby as there is for cricket or football obviously.
Why do think that is? Is it a lack of funding, coaches or interest?
Tom: It's just the society we're brought up in. This country that we live in is a football dominated country. We've got the best league in the world, there's so much money in it, so much investment, so much support, bigger fanbases and bigger clubs, and it's just seen an English pastime as such. I just think it's the opposite end of the spectrum to New Zealand, where there it is all about rugby.
As an ambitious young rugby player, do you see NRFC as a stepping stone to bigger things or can you achieve your ambitions here?
Tom: I'd like to think it's a stepping stone to bigger things. I've always aspired to be a professional rugby player. Obviously, I got given that chance this year when I signed my first contract. The club's great, I wouldn't change it for the world. I've had a great experience here. I'd like to think as a young lad coming through that this is going to help me go through the system and try to push into a Premiership side, but if not I wouldn't say that I hadn't taken anything from it, I could stay here for the next ten years and be happy. It's a great club, it's a great environment, it's a great level of rugby, and obviously being a local lad it's something I'm ambitious for and I'm proud to represent the place that I'm from.
Talking of ambition, rugby is played with an odd-shaped ball the bounce of which can't be predicted. This could, and often does, affect games, seasons, maybe even careers. Does that randomness make it too much of a lottery? Or does it actually make the game a better spectacle?
Tom: As a spectacle I think you've hit the nail on the head there: the unpredictability of the game. You can be playing top of the league against bottom of the league and it can be a toss up who wins. In football one goal can win a game, but in rugby there's so many different ways to score. I think, as a spectacle, that makes it better to watch and even better to play, in some ways.
Brent: Especially in this league. In the championship, there are no easy games. The weather plays a factor and teams’ grounds, and you turn up on the day and a lot of different factors can come into it, so it's far from predicable with rugby games. There's always that element of surprise.
Rugby can also be a pretty brutal game though – spearing, eye-gouging, high tackles, plus all the legal stuff...
Brent: I think there's a bit of a stereotype that puts a lot of people off and they think they don't want their child playing that kind of thing, but these days the game is so clean and a lot more skill based than back in the day, when it would have been the big boys dominating and the bigger team would just beat you up. You see the way New Zealand play, and they're one of the best in the world because they're so accurate and they work hard on their skills and those elements, whereas other teams try and turn up with an old-school mentality – I guess like the Argentinians, or the French – and they think if they've got a big forward pack they'll have it easy. But the game's so unpredictable and there's so many elements that come into it.
What's the most pain you've received in a game?
Tom: I've had a bad knee injury, broke both my ankles, my nose three times. I think it's been smashed up unceremoniously, to be honest with you! I've broke my wrist, had operations on my thumb, but one of the most painful things is getting your nose broken! Me and Brent haven't got the greatest ones on us to start with! It's so fragile, and when your eyes are watering from a little clock on the end of the nose...
Brent: Those little things are the most painful, like the little fingers. But, touch wood, I haven't had anything too serious. At the time, when you're out there, it doesn't hurt so much, but the next day's a different story. My son head-butted me accidentally at the weekend and I was almost in tears then! That felt worse than any injury during a game!
So who is the toughest player at NRFC?
Brent: The toughest... the toughest...
Tom [smirking and points at himself, both laugh]: I mean it's a game of rugby at the end of the day and you're only as tough as your opposition and the man to the left and the man to the right of you. In a squad like this we have training sessions that are harder and more physical than games, and I wouldn't say anyone is tougher than anyone else because everyone will always put their head where they shouldn't be putting it…
Brent: It's one of those ones where sometimes opposition teams will turn up and look for the biggest guy. We had a big Tongan player last season and teams would look at him and go Jeez… you know? But sometimes with big teams, you'll look at the size of them, but you won't even see them in the game if their work rate isn't there. That's why you've got to be a bit of an all-rounder as well. You're not going to feature much in the game or have much of an influence otherwise. Some younger guys probably think they just need to get in the gym and get as big as they can, but that's not going to make a difference if you can't make it work in the game.
Tom: If you can't catch up with the game, or you haven't got the skill-set, or you're not fast enough to be in a position, then there's no point in even being tough or being able to wrap your fist around someone's face because you're not going to be in the right position to start with.
And who is the worst player to room with on away trips? Is there anyone with any terrible habits?
Brent: I haven't been here long so I haven't had that many trips...
Tom: I wouldn't want to be with Stokesie [James Stokes], but that's just because he does my head in every day life!
Brent: Someone that doesn't sleep. Obviously my sleep isn't great with having kids...
Tom: I think Duffo [Jason Duffey] farts and shits quite a bit, so I've heard!
Brent: It's usually the old story of the front-rowers, they snore and...
Tom: Yeah you'd be looking more at your front-rowers, Hols [Michael Holford], [Matt] Parr, [Matt] Shields, Duffo, people like that.
Brent: Yeah, making a mess of the bathroom...
Tom: Yeah they snore, they want a double bed as soon as they walk in, whatever TV programme they want on is on, if it's hot they want it hot, if it's cold they want it cold, and you're not going to argue with them!
Brent: Yeah there's a few there that you'd favour over the others!
Tom: Yeah, a nice little pretty back that does their hair in the mirror!
You mentioned earlier the Premiership quality of Meadow Lane, and the high standard of the training facilities here, so with that set-up and the history that NRFC has, what do you think is the missing piece for NRFC to kick on and reach its potential?
Tom: I mean, we've got the basis of a good squad. It's a tight-knit group. But if you go to the top teams in the Premiership and teams in the middle of the table, they've got really, really big squads with good players that don't play week in, week out.
Brent: Yeah, being able to rotate the squad around, and having that luxury to change the team and having a lot of good quality players to pick from. Because in this league, it's tough every week for eighty minutes, you can't have the same players playing the whole season.
Tom: But we're united and we're tight, we're a good squad with it so you can't take anything away from it because you need a squad as tight-knitted as us to get you through to the Premiership. But it's just if you're in that top level it's the level of training when you can have fifteen on fifteen training every day with people on the sidelines swapping in, whereas sometimes if there's a few injuries...
Brent: Yeah, you really notice it. We can struggle a little bit with numbers.
Tom: Yeah, we can struggle to get a full, proper training session done, but we always regroup. We always stick together with it.
Brent: I think we've got all the right things in place.
Tom: We just need, like you say, the luck of the bounce, a nice refereeing decision, two wins away from home and you can be there, you're in the mix.
Brent: I mean you saw it with London Welsh: they're not even playing this season at their own ground. I think they've shown other clubs it can be done now, whereas in the past you had all these regulations in place that meant teams thought there was no point in even trying to push on because they couldn't guarantee they would get promoted, so it's good signs for other clubs to have a crack at it.
So if there are any LeftLion readers that are new to rugby are umming and aahing about coming down to Meadow Lane for an NRFC game, what would you say to them to convince them to make the trip?
Brent: I don't think I've ever heard anyone come to game for the first time and see the game and be disappointed. So many people say ‘I've never watched a game of live rugby’, but it's completely different to a football game. You go down and fans are more sociable with opposition teams and you can have a bit of a laugh with them and have a drink as well. Rugby is just such a good game to watch live.
Tom: You don't have to understand the rules, or understand the game, just the concept of thirty of the biggest men you've ever seen playing a hard, intense and brutal sport against each other. Then, after eighty minutes, they shake hands and are best friends, but for eighty minutes want to rip each others head's off. I'd just say if you've never done it, don't umm and aah, just come and watch and make your own assumption.