Remember Me? Tom Kingston on the comeback trail

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It is only when Tom Kingston checks himself slightly mid-conversation, chokes back a potential tear and concedes “You can probably see that I’m pretty disappointed and frustrated right now,” that the pain and emotion etched across his young face offer me a brief window into the darkness he has endured over the last two injury-plagued years of his fledgling career.

Having first interviewed the exceedingly polite, fiercely intelligent and hugely talented Kingston when he was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 19-year-old with the rugby world at his feet back in 2010, seeing such raw emotion five years later was a sobering reality check as to the fragility of a rugby player’s existence.

We were chatting after he had just completed his second successive 80 minutes for Sydney University, against West Harbour, just over a month ago. Having returned from Melbourne, where he is officially still contracted to the Rebels until September but certain to be elsewhere in 2016, the utility back was clearly happy to be running around his old stomping ground at Uni Oval No.1. Back amongst friends and family and revelling in the sheer joy of playing footy.

For there was a time not so long ago, that he may well have thought it was something he would never experience again.

The previous week against Easts had seen his first competitive run-out for almost 18 months after his move from the Waratahs to the Rebels in 2013 turned into the stuff of nightmares. Having dazzled in his first two years at Moore Park, the then winger found himself battling for a starting spot under incoming coach Michael Cheika’s first season at the helm, and torn between the desire to play for his state and the quest for more minutes on the pitch, as a result.

“I was offered a contract with the Tahs in 2013, and really struggled with the decision and came very close to re-signing a couple of times,” he explained. “But ultimately, I wanted to be an 80 minute contributor every week, and at the time I felt like the Rebels was the best place for that.”

Desperate to show the Waratahs what they were missing, he headed to the Rebels intent on putting together a body of work that would not only cement his Super Rugby credentials, but also fast-track his return to the ranks of ‘Wallaby prospect’, a position earmarked for him when he first broke onto the professional scene three years prior.

But fate’s fickle hand dealt him an unseemly and unjust blow, and his road to redemption was riddled with humps before he’d even begun his journey in earnest.

“Since the first pre-season that I was in Melbourne I had patellar tendonitis – (an overuse injury common amongst young athletes) – which is a chronic injury in the sense that it will be there when you wake up in the morning, it will be there when you’re walking up stairs, it’ll be there when you train and it’ll be there when you’re in the weights room,” he explained.

“It gradually gets worse because tendons are a part of the body that don’t get much blood flow, and for things to heal you need blood. Things did gradually get worse through the 2014 Super Rugby season but obviously, I wanted to play as much as possible. I’m not making excuses but I just wasn’t getting out of my body what I had in 2013.

Tom Kingston_Waratahs v Rebels_2014_AJF

Rebel Hell: Kingston’s move to Melbourne has not gone according to plan – Photo: AJF Photography

“I then went through a 16 week conservative treatment and got nowhere unfortunately, and ended up having surgery in January this year followed by 10 weeks of rehab. When an injury becomes chronic – for example, people at a desk who have back pain – it becomes an injury that affects your brain as well as your body. So, walking upstairs my body will tell me there’s pain when there might not be – kind of like a phantom pain.

“They say that it takes just as long as you had the injury for that brain mechanism to go away. I’ve had the injury for 18 months but I’ve been physically right for four or five, so it’s something I’ve just got to deal with and get on with things. But it’s been a challenge.”

And then some.

Understandably, the inability to initially give of his absolute best on the field, followed by the refusal of his body to let him take part at all, took a toll on Kingston. That game against Easts back in June came just a day after his 24th birthday, so time is still very much on his side to make his mark in the Australian game. But losing such a large block of playing hours so early in your career, and the knock to your confidence that it must inevitably imbue, caused more than a few re-evaluations of what is, essentially, a life less ordinary.

“It’s extremely frustrating because the coaches expect a lot of you and your team mates expect a lot of you, but that pales in comparison to what you expect of yourself,” he reflected. “As a guy whose main attribute that I rely on is being athletic, struggling so much with my knees has been difficult, and you sort of have to become a smarter footballer because you’re not necessarily getting one hundred percent out of your body anymore.

“As a football player you end up living your life in two year cycles, and you become quite good at dealing with change. But if you’re thinking about it the whole time and you let it consume you, it affects the standard of your football and your living – and no-one wants that. The frustration of not playing well, of having things out your control, the frustration of selection – they all begin to weigh on you.”

But having almost reached rock bottom, he finally came to realise that he still had the appetite to succeed in rugby. And it was the example of a couple of Uni stalwarts that showed him the way.

“Seeing guys like Tom Carter and Tim Davidson, you look at them and you think there’s a reason that they’re still doing this,” he reasons. “They love it, they still have the passion for it. Being around guys like that, it’s undervalued and you don’t realise it until you see other guys that do it particularly tough when they leave football. There’s a reason behind that and it’s because we’ve got it quite good really.

“You start off and everything’s amazing and your friends are watching you on TV and treating you like you’re something different that you mightn’t have been, and that was amazing. But it does become your life and then your friends are less interested and people are like ‘So you play rugby – what else do you do?’ I’ve sort of come to the realisation in the last twelve months that you only get a certain period of your life to do it and the lifestyle is incredible, and so you’re better off just making the most of it.

“You shouldn’t throw it in, you shouldn’t have that regret, you shouldn’t look back when you’re in your forties and think ‘I probably had two or three more years that I could have done that.’”

Tom Kingston_Sydney Uni v Gordon_2015_AJF

Back Home: Kingston has revelled in his return to Uni colours in recent weeks – Photo: AJF Photography

And so it was that, with his time in the Victorian capital drawing to an unsatisfactory end, he returned to Sydney and the Uni fold hungry to play, eager to improve and desperate to make up for lost time.

“I’d been looking forward to coming back here for weeks,” Kingston admits when we caught up again earlier this week. “The situation in Melbourne wasn’t going to be tenable going forward and I reacquainted my aspirations and my goals to playing at Sydney University because I love it. It’s really exciting to be back in the Uni environment. I’d been following their progress from Melbourne and they’ve had a bit of a tough year, but it’s started to turn and we’ve just got to be consistent now.”

You get the feeling that his return to Camperdown is food for the soul as much as it is a chance to resurrect his rugby career. Given the way things have panned out, being back in the Uni fraternity and amongst people he grew up with on and off the field, and who helped him forge a professional career in the first place, is clearly the best place for him to be at this stage of his rehabilitation.

“I feel valued in this environment, and with the way things worked out in the last two or three years from a Super Rugby point of view, I haven’t put myself in a position that warranted that attention,” he said. “In this environment I really like being ‘somebody’ again. We all like being wanted – and that’s across anything – but I feel that most clearly here. I definitely like that I’m in some way important to the team here.”

Important indeed, his contributions to a Uni side that had struggled for consistency through the first half of the season have proven to be pivotal in the run to the finals. His three tries from five wins in his six starts helped the Students to a fourth placed finish and a date with Southern Districts in this Sunday’s semi-final – a game that has ‘revenge mission’ stamped all over it.

He wasn’t a part of last season’s home qualifying final loss to Souths, but the aftershock for every past or present Student would have travelled far after Ben Volavola’s injury-time sideline winner prevented Uni from a Grand Final appearance for the first time in 10 years. More pertinently, the only blot on the side’s copybook since his return to Varsity colours was a 31-10 humbling at the hands of the boys from the Shire just four weeks ago.

“Last years finals loss has been spoken about, and there is a feeling that the team let themselves down losing last year,” Kingston admits. “But what Souths did to us on No.1 Oval a few weeks ago is probably more of a motivating factor. They nothing short of annihilated us in that first half, and down at Forshaw it’ll be even more of a challenge. They’ve got a really exciting backline, a sharp back row and some really dangerous players.

“For us, the feeling is really positive. As a backline in particular we feel like we haven’t shown our best, but every week we are getting closer. Last week the midfield defence with Carts and Jim Stewart was great, and our use of turnover ball was strong. Now the challenge is to maintain that and work on being better in our structured attack.

“We want to play exciting footy, we want to throw the ball around and we want to work to the skill set that we feel that we’ve got. We’ve got really talented guys in our side, guys that can play and we want to feed them. It can be difficult of course but we pride ourselves on our fitness, so if it doesn’t come in the twentieth minute and it doesn’t come in the fortieth minute, we want to wear teams down so that it does come in the seventieth or eightieth minutes.”

Tom KIngston tribute_Tom Carter_Chris Malone

After those tentative early steps, taken as they were in the relatively unfamiliar no.13 jersey with the Students ravaged by injury and sorely lacking any kind of experience in midfield, Kingston has quietly gone about his business.

Now at fullback – a position Tom Carter feels is his best, and from which head coach Chris Malone drew arguably his finest ever form in the run-in to the 2013 Shute Shield Premiership success – he has improved week upon week. To the point where, as anyone who witnessed last Saturday’s performance against Northern Suburbs should attest, he is already looking something like the player that had Super Rugby defences dancing a merry jig in his early years at the Waratahs.

The blistering pace, quick feet, eye for an opening, support play, comfort under the high ball, defensive nous and game smarts that were a hallmark of his early success, were gratuitously back on display as he tore the Shoremen asunder time and time again with a series of intuitive and adroitly-timed thrusts. It was a sure-fire signal of intent.

“I’m contracted with the Rebels til September, but I won’t be back there next year and I have no further commitments with them after the end of season function this Friday night,” he confirmed.

“Obviously, the last two years in Melbourne haven’t gone according to plan. So, it’s almost a start at square one type of situation where I know that I’m good enough, but I have to show that to everyone else and prove that I am up to Super Rugby standard again and generate some interest.

“I haven’t played in eighteen months so these teams are going off old footage or what they’ve heard about me as a person. I’m at a stage in my life and in my career where if I’m wanted by someone, they need to know how they’re going to use me, and the only way they’re going to do that is by watching me play. So I need to play good Shute Shield footy and we need to go as deep as we can in the finals. We need to try and win this thing.”

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Lion Tamer: Playing for the Waratahs against the British & Irish Lions in 2013 – Photo: SPA Images

From there, attention will quickly turn to the NRC and a stint with the Sydney Stars, an opportunity via Fox Sports to put himself firmly back in the shop window in front of a national audience.

But of course, all this depends on whether his body will hold up to the rigours of top-line footy on a weekly basis. While a return to the professional ranks is firmly in his sights, it is his health and wellbeing that are of prime importance right now.

“The number one priority is to get my body back in the best possible shape so I don’t have to worry about it,” he agrees. “At the moment, every week is sort of like a recipe where you try to add a new ingredient and see if it works or not. Then you come out on Saturday and taste the dish and some weeks it’s not good enough so you’ve got to re-tinker with the recipe, and I don’t like having to do that. I like running a nice routine every week and getting better every week.

“The staff here at Uni are great, Tim Leahy could have been the S&C coach for any Super Rugby team for the last 10 years, he’s incredible at what he does. He and Carts have been helping me with a program to strengthen the injured area and get confidence back into it, and I really feel as though it’s turning the corner. If I stay the course I’m really confident that it will continue to improve.”

If it does and he continues to put in performances such as he produced against Norths, it is surely only a matter of time before we see him gracing the higher levels of the game once again. But his time out of the spotlight has afforded a bit of perspective on where he wants to take himself on this journey. He has re-established his goals and found that he has plenty of boxes left to tick.

“As a sport itself, some people love the collisions and the feeling you get on a Saturday, I love the opportunity to get a little bit better at something every week. Whether that’s being able to run a bit faster or being able to run for a little bit longer, or lift a bit more weight or pass accurately for a metre further.

“You don’t start your career again because I’ve had amazing experiences – I’ve played forty-odd Super Rugby games, I’ve played forty-odd 1st Grade games, I’ve won two Shute Shield Premierships. But have I achieved everything I want to achieve in rugby? Not by any means.”

If the heavens align and the rugby gods finally look down favourably on one of their most naturally gifted young sons, just you watch him go…

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Original version published by Rugby News on July 30th, 2015

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