Carrying on with my quest to discover how rugby prepares players for their lives after rugby I contacted Harlequins to see if Will Skinner; recently retired would meet with me. Having been given his contact details Will replied in the positive very promptly. And so I made my way to Wandsworth in the most abysmal and unseasonable weather I’ve known at this time of year. I have to say I don’t know how I functioned before I bought a car with SatNav even if it does on occasions tell great big lies; this time it led me straight to the Costa where I was due to meet Will.
To start at the beginning, Will was born in Northampton; he played his first rugby for Olney Rugby Club. He went to Bedford School a school with a tradition of producing sportsmen at the very highest level. Amongst their number Harold Abrahams CBE winner of the Gold medal at 100m as depicted in the film Chariots of Fire. Alastair Cook MBE the current England cricket captain (at the time of writing, not a very happy England captain) was in the year below Will. Well known rugby names in addition to Will include Martin Bayfield, Andy Gomarsall MBE and Dave Callam a Scottish international. Will was clearly in an environment where a hint of sporting excellence would be picked up on and enhanced.
Will played both cricket and rugby but took the direction to concentrate on rugby as he was approaching the sixth form. Having been taller than his peers through his earlier years at the school Will played at number 8 he moved to number 7 as the others caught him up. Dusty Hare spotted Will as he was playing regional rugby and Will joined the Leicester Tigers Academy at a time when the club had two of the very best in the first team squad in Neil Back and Lewis Moody. Public schools have a tradition of an afternoon of sport each week, Bedford happily allowed Will to train with the Leicester academy each week. I work in a state school myself and we have several very promising sportsmen; it’s clear that the public school system is a much more conducive environment for sportsmen to thrive.
Leicester offered Will the chance to take his A Levels within their set up but he opted to complete them at the school he knew. At 18 he signed a two year academy contract; during this time which involved training with the first team squad on a daily basis Will had the first of several serious injuries suffering a prolapsed disc in the bottom of his spine. He thrived however and was part of the England 7’s team reaching the final playing in Brisbane in the 2002/03 season, losing to New Zealand on Wills’ 19th birthday. Unusually due to England duties and injuries Will made 10 first team appearances in his first year, this led Dean Richards to tear up his academy contract and award him a full professional contract for an additional 2 year. The 2003 World Cup saw the experienced flankers leave a berth for the young Will who made the most of his time allowing him to impress further. Will further represented England at U21 being part of the team winning the Six Nations.
Will’s career didn’t go to plan at Tigers as he first suffered a hamstring injury then a long term shoulder injury. Dean Richards had moved on and new coach Richard Cockerill saw no place in the squad for Will; a new contract wasn’t offered. Imagining that his foray into the rugby world may be over Will applied to universities; however Dean Richards wasn’t ready to let Will disappear, now at Harlequins he offered Will a 2 year contract. In common with another man I’ve interviewed recently Bernard Jackman Will took a risk at this point; wanting to throw his all at rugby but move on if it didn’t work he negotiated a one year deal. Within 3 months Will was fully back to his best and the contract was extended to the original 2 years offered. He became the youngest captain in the Premiership a post he held through both good and torrid times; as the Bloodgate scandal happened during the teams’ home Heineken Cup quarter final against Leinster. The fall out saw Dean Richards resign from his post and receive a 3 year world wide ban from involvement in rugby. Tom Williams the player involved served a one year ban.
In March 2010 Connor O’Shea took the post of Director of Rugby and started to put Harlequins back together again. In O’Shea’s first full season Will lifted the Amlin Cup, in the second and in some style Harlequins won the Premiership final beating favourites Leicester. That win was to be one of the last games of competitive rugby Will was to play. The fragility of life as a professional rugby player hit Will as a neck injury suffered during an early game in the 2012/13 season was to finish his career. He played on after the original injury, something he also did after suffering a concussion injury earlier in his career. The injury was serious resulting in a prolapsed disc; an operation followed but the verdict has been for Will that his playing days are over at the age of 29.
The year after the injury was spent trying to get fit and Will had involvement with the team at the training ground every day. Part of that involvement was to be part of the team tracking those mysterious contraptions inserted in the back of the players shirts. I was interested to learn that the GPS devices are worn during training as well as the game and they measure a variety of things such as how far and fast the player moves as well as the level of impact and are used in training as much as anything to make sure players don’t overdo things, amazing stuff this technology shizzle!
Once the reality of Wills’ situation became certain it was clear he needed to consider his future. During his playing years Will took the degree that had always tempted him, doing it the hard way with distance learning, it took him 6 years but he passed the Business degree successfully. He’d also had various internships in the City working in both insurance and wealth management. However Wills’ future lies within the Harlequins family, in the role of Affiliate Partner Manager. To explain that role, Harlequins the brand is in the top 10 most recognisable in the World, they have to date 8 affiliated clubs around the world. Amongst the 8 are clubs in Kenya, America, Japan, South Africa, India and Abu Dhabi, Wills’ role will involve helping those clubs to grow as well as seeking to expand the number of affiliated clubs. He works directly with David Ellis and is looking to establish links with the various ex players he knows who find themselves in the emerging countries as far as the game of rugby is concerned. The long term project should see not only the brand that is Harlequins grow but also the game of rugby. It’s an exciting prospect and a challenge that Will is relishing! It’d be great to check back with him in 5 years to see how the project is progressing.
Before I left Will we discussed his concussion injury a bit more, having had my interest sparked by Bernard Jackman. Will was out for 6 weeks after being concussed early in a game only to impress upon the medical team that he was good to carry on; he was then concussed again in the same game. The result for Will was clear to see from the length of his time out. In his opinion players need to be more honest about the nature of their injury when it comes to concussion. The more I speak to players the more I understand their attitude towards the game they love, they’ll do anything to stay on that pitch. The game of rugby needs to do more to impress upon players the seriousness of concussion injuries and to take more control when it is plain that a head injury has occurred.
I couldn’t resist asking Will who in the current Harlequins squad he thought would wear an England shirt in the future. He picked 2 players who would be on my list of most likely to appear in Luke Wallace and Charlie Walker. Luke Wallace although playing with a number 6 on his back roams around the field like a natural number 7, it seems Quins have a habit of producing great flankers! Charlie Walker is looking great on the wing and reminds Will of David Strettle; not a bad comparison. So, another thing to check back on. Will was great to talk to and again proved to be a man who was prepared to take risks in his rugby career; risks that paid off for him. I wish him well in his new venture and will be very interested to see how the plan progresses.