You can take the boy out of Wales, but you can never take Wales out of the boy!
Former Wales ager grade captain Tommy Reffell epitomises that old saying as every weight he lifts, stride he takes and tackle he makes at Leicester is in a bid to one day reach his ultimate goal of playing for Wales at senior level.
Ever since he upped sticks at the family home in Pencoed and headed to the Midlands and a new life in the Leicester Tigers Academy and Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I College six years ago he has dedicated his life to becoming a professional rugby player.
So far, so good! There were caps for Wales at U18, 15 more over two years at U20 level and this season he was voted the Premiership Cup Breakthrough Player of the Year. With 16 first-team games for Tigers already under his belt, he just wants more.
Now back in training as the Premiership gets ready for its return to play next month, the 21-year-old Reffell hopes to use the remaining matches of the current season to impress new head coach Steve Borthwick ahead of what he hopes will be another breakthrough campaign in 2020-21.
“I’ve been really happy with the amount of trust the coaches showed in me this season. I need to use this block of training to develop myself physically and then put down a marker in the games coming up,” said Reffell.
“I need to play as many minutes as possible at the moment. I have to work hard in training and on the pitch to be able to do that.
“We’ve got new coaches coming in and that is going to be a big opportunity for everyone to impress and to try to claim a shirt. Leicester is a great club and the club I have been at for a long time.
“I’ve grown into the Leicester culture and I am really enjoying my time here. Ever since I arrived at the Academy the main goal for me was to play in the first-team, and to play regularly.
“That’s an on-going goal of mine. I just want to push my way into the team and start making a name for myself.”
While getting back into training action in small groups with his Tigers team mates has been a good experience, the recent lockdown gave him the chance to spend an extended period back home with his family. That gave him the chance to pick up some cooking tips from his mum and go back to where it all started for him at Pencoed RFC.
“I was able to get home for a good few weeks during lockdown and it was nice to see the family on a regular basis,” said Reffell.
“It was probably the longest period I’ve spent at home since I went to Leicester and I made the most of it. Having 12 weeks at home with the family was really nice, although it was very weird for all of us.
“We weren’t expecting it to go on for as long as it did. Two months in and my mum was asking when I was going back!
“I was able to do an hour of exercise every day – do some gym work and then go for a run. The club gave me some session ideas to use on the field and some weight programmes, which were really good.
“I looked at sessions on line to adapt to my needs and I stayed in touch with a lot of the players via social media to find out how they were. That was good for all our mental well-being because for some of the players left in Leicester it was a difficult time.
“I’m a pretty big gamer so a lot of time was spent on the Play Station and my mum taught me how to cook . . . a bit. There is no signature dish yet, but it all helped and I’ve still got plenty of time to learn.
“It was nice being able to go back to my roots and to run on the Pencoed rugby club pitch again. I was down there four times a week and sometimes I’d cross paths with a few of the local lads.”
But now it is back to work at Leicester, where the players have been asked to take a 25% wage cut to help ease the financial burden placed on all sporting clubs due to the coronavirus crisis. Five players, Manu Tuilagi and Kyle Eastmond among them, have left the club as a result of the contractual changes.
But for Reffell it is business as usual as he battles for a place in the starting line-up to take on table-topping Exeter Chiefs when the delayed Round 14 of the Premiership returns next month. There is still a European Challenge Cup title to chase as well.
“I’ve agreed to the necessary cuts to help out the club. It is a unique and challenging situation for the players and the club as well,” said Reffell.
“I want to stay at the club because I really like it here and I’m just happy to develop my career at Leicester. The history of the club is massive and it is still one of the biggest clubs in Europe in my eyes.
“The fan base is brilliant and it is very special when you run out at Welford Road in front of 20,000 people. It is my sixth season at the club and I’ve made some great friends.
“When the new coaching team comes in, hopefully, we can build and make it something special again. We’re training in small groups at the moment, so I haven’t seen a lot of the other players.
“The morale in my training group is really good and we are all pushing and supporting each other. It is a really competitive group and everyone wants to be up the front and to finish first.
“That bit of competition is pushing everyone on. It gets a bit sweaty training under a mask and I’m having to remember to wipe down the weights with disinfectant every time I use them and move on.
“We’ve got all the social distancing procedures worked out as well with two metres between each training station. We then leave the gym via a one way system.
“I live on the outskirts of Leicester so the new lockdown in the city doesn’t affect me, but it is certainly a kick in the teeth for all those local business who were looking forward to starting up again. It is certainly a bit of a set-back for the people of Leicester.”
There seem to be no such set-backs for Reffell on the pitch at the moment. And with the recent departure of fellow flanker Guy Thompson to Ealing Trailfinders he has lost one rival for the iconic No 7 jersey at a club where it used to be filled by the likes of Lewis Moody, Josh Kronfeld and Neil back.
Certainly, new Tigers director of rugby, Geordan Murphy, knows all about the potential of the young Welshman.
“Not only is he a real asset for us on the pitch, but he’s a leader off it in helping drive the standards we want true Tigers to be identified with,” commented Murphy after Reffell was named as the Premiership Cup Breakthrough Player of the Year.
Last summer Reffell was joining forces with Lennon Greggains and Jac Morgan in helping Wales U20 beat New Zealand at the World Rugby U20 Championships. A year earlier he played alongside Taine Basham and Dan Davis in the Welsh back row as Australia U20 were beaten at the same event.
Add in leading Wales U18 to victory over South Africa Schools in Cape Town and he has already managed to secure wins over the three southern hemisphere giants in a Welsh jersey. The big question is, can he make the grade to the senior level and do the same thing?
“There are some amazing players in my position and right across the back row in Wales. There are also some great youngsters coming through, some I’ve played with and some who are just a little bit older than me,” he added.
“To be fair, the Welsh selectors are really blessed with back row talent. You’ve got the likes of Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric, who are world class and playing really good rugby at the moment, in the senior Wales side.
I am setting myself small goals to reach and have other targets. As I reach each target I hope to be able to push on
“Taine Basham, Lennon Greggains and Jac Morgan are all good mates of mine and I played with them at U20 level and through the age groups. I keep in contact with them and it is nice to see them all going really well.
“As a young player my main goal is to push on as much as possible. Everyone wants to go as far as they can in the sport in which they grew up.
“I don’t really model myself on certain players, I like to watch them all and take tips from those players who do things I like. Neil Back was a legend at Leicester and his try scoring record speaks for itself.
“Every time you see the Tigers classic games he is always there buzzing around acting as a link player. With Justin Tipuric, his skills are there for all to see and he is good enough to play as a centre. His unnoticed work around the breakdown is something for which he isn’t given enough credit.
“I am setting myself small goals to reach and have other targets. As I reach each target I hope to be able to push on.”
Pencoed RFC can already claim recent Welsh heroes in Scott Gibbs, Gareth Thomas, Gareth Cooper and Gavin Henson. Will ‘Tommy and Tiger’ be the next one?