My Life in Rugby - Haydn Thomas
By Jon Newcombe
Former Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester and Bristol Bears scrum-half Hadyn Thomas reflects on his playing career with the Rugby Paper's Jon Newcombe.
The other week we had a 10th anniversary Zoom chat about our Championship play-off win over Bristol and everyone agreed how privileged we all were to be a part of such a special day in the club’s history. I’m really proud to have been involved in the Chiefs’ journey from that point right the way through to winning the Premiership in 2017.
Looking back, over the two legs I just think we had more hunger to succeed than Bristol. Part of my hunger was fuelled by Ali Hepher’s pre-match claim that Bristol had crates of champagne in their dressing room ready to celebrate.
After the final whistle, I still had no reason to suspect he’d made it all up and asked if he’d go and see if they’d be happy to sell us the champagne as it would be a shame for it to go to waste. That’s when he told me there was no champagne. He had me! Although I didn’t need any extra motivation for such a big game, I definitely found another gear because I was left thinking, ‘how could they disrespect us like this?’ That Chiefs squad was so tight-knit, similar to the one I joined in 2003. That bond of togetherness and cohesiveness runs through all Chiefs squads.
I moved down to Devon after being released from Bath’s academy, transferring to Exeter University for the final two years as a chemistry student. I use that experience as an example to some of our academy lads – that sometimes the path you are on is not always the right path and you may have to choose a different way.
Rob (Baxter) was coaching the university team and that’s how the link with the Chiefs came about. Ian Bremner was in charge at the time, though, and he’s the one who gave me my big break. Those first two years went really well and, most importantly, I was really enjoying my rugby. I finished the first year as supporters’ player of the year and top scored with 11 tries. It was great learning off Tony Yapp, he was one of the squad’s few full-time pros and we’d practice skills together during the week.
I was fortunate that Exeter had a fantastic pack with the likes of Danny Porte, Rob and Richie (Baxter), and Gary Willis, to name but a few, so I had a bit of an armchair ride. The conditions at the County Ground weren’t anything like Sandy Park but I was given free licence to play my game and use quick taps whenever I wanted.
I had such good memories of the County Ground. In my mind it wasn’t as bad as it comes across in some of the old videos you see, maybe that’s because I was smaller and lighter and could shift across the mud a bit quicker than other people! I loved the atmosphere there, with the people and the cars around the perimeter and the really tall goalposts.
The atmosphere went up several notches whenever we played local rivals Plymouth Albion, who had a very strong team back then. There was definitely a different vibe before games, both home and away. Those derbies were the first really big high-pressure games I played in and I think they stood me in good stead for when I was playing in big Premiership games or finals, like the LV= Cup in 2014, when we beat Northampton to win our first piece of major silverware.
Not that I wanted to leave, but with the move to the new ground still a couple of years away and the Chiefs still in National One, I decided to take Nigel Melville up on his offer to join Gloucester. I never played for Nigel, sadly, as he’d been replaced by Dean Ryan and Bryan Redpath by the time I’d arrived. I had two very enjoyable seasons at Gloucester, playing alongside big characters like Phil Vickery and Luke Narraway. It was good to experience full-time professional rugby for the first time, and to not have to worry about being late for lectures and things like that.
During my time there, Rory Lawson and Peter Richards, both internationals, were ahead of me in the scrum-half pecking order so when Bristol promised me more game time, I decided to move on. Bristol had just finished third in the Premiership and it seemed like a good move; however, things didn’t work out and I was delighted when the opportunity to go back to the Chiefs came along.
I couldn’t wait to get back. I knew what the club was like, I knew what Rob was like, and I knew what people like Tony Rowe and Kieron Northcott were like. To be back in Devon was great as well as I love being here. I couldn’t have been more fortunate with my timing as I rejoined the season we won promotion. When we beat Bristol, Austin Healey said it was great for rugby that we’d gone up but that we’d lose every game. To be fair, he wasn’t alone, everyone had us down as relegation certainties.
We brought in Samoan international Junior Poluleuligaga, who was quite a big-name signing, in my position, but he got injured in pre-season which gave me the opportunity for game time, and I did pretty well and kicked on from there.
The way we wanted to play suited me. It was a high tempo, multi-option, multi-phase game, and I was pretty fit after investing a lot of time in myself in pre-season and got the ball away pretty well. I like to think of myself as an attacking nine and we attacked a lot and sometimes ran the opposition off the field.
I remember our first game against Gloucester vividly; we emptied everything. To get the win, against an established Premiership side, gave us so much confidence because it reaffirmed our belief that we could do this while at the same time proving so many people wrong. Next up was Leicester away. That game is one we reminisce about now in the office at Sandy Park, where I combine my coaching role between the academy and senior team. If there is one game, or one section of a game, I’d love to replay it would be the final 15-20 minutes at Welford Road. We were leading a star-studded Tigers team but a try from Dan Hipkiss and then a scrum penalty under our posts cost us getting even a losing bonus point.
We steadily got better as a team and that also applied to individual players who’d been with the club in the Championship days. My form with the Chiefs led to me playing for England in the annual Barbarians game at Twickenham. I was in the same team as our back row Tom Johnson, and Dean Mumm was in the Baa-baas side. It is a day I’ll never forget.
In our first season, we were probably safe by Christmas and the next year we got better again, and so on. It became easier for us to attract better players as we became more comfortable in the Premiership and that also helped us to evolve. I wasn’t surprised to see us move forward, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see us moving further forward from where we are now because it’s in our DNA to continually improve.
I’m lucky to be a part of that process now. I love working at the club with the guys, it’s a dream job for me.