Tom Palmer is one of rugby’s true renaissance men. Having played in the Premiership, Top 14 and the Pro 12, he has experienced every major European tournament first hand, as well as playing 42 times for England.
But to begin with, Palmer talks about the club where it all started for him: Leeds Tykes, or what is now known as Yorkshire Carnegie. When Palmer is asked what is needed to take them back into the Premiership, he is unequivocal: “Money! To be blunt, the club needs to spend more money on its squad.
Just look at the team Bristol have put together in the Championship, and with London Irish going down and the sizeable budget they will have, Yorkshire Carnegie need to be spending more. They have a great coach in Bryan Redpath and a good set-up now, but the quality of the squad will make the difference”.
He is disheartened, however, by the struggle rugby union has to compete in the midst of football and rugby league heartlands up in the north of England: “It’s difficult to say how teams in the north can compete with the richest clubs when they attract significantly lower numbers of fans. There isn’t a problem with the number, or quality, of players coming out of the academies of Sale, Yorkshire and Newcastle”.
All three sides are continually producing top class players, the best of whom are usually tempted away by higher paying southern clubs and the perception that signing for a top four team will increase your chances of playing for England.
This is especially true in Yorkshire, where the best players have to move on if they want to even play in the Premiership.
There are probably at least a dozen graduates of the Leeds academy now playing in the Premiership.
He doesn’t, however, claim to have any solutions: “It’s difficult to see this pattern changing, especially with the salary cap increasing year on year”.
After establishing himself at Leeds Tykes and helping to take them into the Premiership, Palmer quickly caught the eye of England selectors. He recalls his first start at Twickenham in 2007 as being one of his best rugby moments, as well as the match v Australia in November 2010 where England scored some scintillating tries against one of the best attacking sides in the sport.
However, he also recalls some of his worst times in an England shirt. “I was gutted that I didn’t make the 2007 World Cup squad. I’d been through all the training camps and made it to the last 36, but wasn’t selected in the final 30. To miss the cut was very difficult to take especially as I didn’t get a chance to prove myself in any of the warm up games.”
Similarly, the infamous 2011 World Cup campaign isn’t a fond memory for Palmer. He admits that some of his teammates showed very poor judgement at times and that their behaviour wasn’t acceptable for England players. Yet he believes the negative media coverage was out of proportion and as such so was the generally unfavourable perception.
The press made a big deal that some of us went bungee jumping and a medical expert was wheeled out who said we could get detached retinas from it.
The week before some of the Ireland team went bungee jumping naked but that didn’t make the papers!
It seems like a lot of the media attention was due to whom Mike Tindall was dating at the time rather than anything else.
After playing for Leeds and Wasps, Palmer moved away from England and spent time at Top 14 club Stade Francais, yet he is pretty damning of the set ups in France. “At Wasps we had a whole room of computers for game analysis, but in Stade Francais there was one laptop”.
With the salary cap in place in the Premiership it means clubs must focus their energies on improving facilities, coaching and player management in order to find a competitive advantage, rather than just spending all of their money on playing squads.
In France, the focus is on buying in players and when I was there, there was certainly an absence of investment on the off-field side of the club.
However, he is full of praise for former team mate Raphael Ibanez, now head coach at Top 14 side Bordeaux. “Raphael is working with a smaller budget at Bordeaux compared to some of the other clubs but they are over achieving thanks to the work of him and the other coaches. He has found success because he understands the Anglo-Saxon and French mindsets and has combined the best parts of both to create a successful culture”.
Now 37, the evergreen Palmer fancied another challenge after spending a season at Gloucester. He once again travelled to continental Europe to become one of the few Englishmen to have played professionally in Italy. He is hopeful Italy can improve now that they have Conor O’Shea in place as head coach, but suspects structural problems will continue to hinder the national side:
One of the issues in Italy is that the President of the FIR is elected, and once in place he has almost complete power, so a lot of the decisions made about Italian rugby are influenced by how he gets himself re-elected.
For instance, the two Italian franchises aren’t allowed to loan players out to the teams in the lower leagues, a decision made in order to buy the votes of the two southern teams who feel they would be disadvantaged.
The result is you have good young players not getting the game time they need to develop.
As someone who has played in all three major European rugby leagues, Palmer is in a unique position to comment on the merits of the trio, particularly on the pertinent issue of player management and burnout:
The Pro 12 used to be able to manage their top players better in the days of automatic qualification for the Heineken Cup.
But with the new set-up that is in place in the Champions Cup, teams in the Pro 12 are having to ensure they pick full sides every week to earn themselves a place in next year’s tournament.
We’ve seen with Connacht performing so well this year that the pressure has been on Leinster, Munster and Ulster.
Due to smaller TV deals Pro 12 teams don’t have the same budgets, or strength in depth, as the squads in the Premiership or Top 14, so the best Pro 12 players will find themselves playing more games and being given fewer weekends off.
Finally, Palmer is looking forward to England’s tour of Australia this summer after grand slam success earlier in the year. “James Haskell was telling me that Eddie Jones has created an excellent environment that the team really enjoys. They work incredibly hard but are also able to relax and switch off and don’t feel under pressure all the time”.
“I think England’s Six Nations success is also because Jones picked the best players available for him. He picked on form. Most notably in the second row where he went for two hugely talented but inexperienced players in Kruis and Itoje, ahead of more experienced options whom the previous regime may have stuck with”.
With the Australia tour it’s difficult to say how England will perform. If Australia play the way they did in the World Cup then of course it is going to be very, very difficult for England.
Another issue facing England is how fresh, or fatigued, their players will be.
The core of the squad is now from Saracens, and after a Champions Cup final, Premiership semi-final and potentially a final as well, they could be pretty tired come the tour.
However, this England team will be full of confidence and self-belief after what has turned out to be a very successful season for English rugby.
They will believe they can win the series and will throw every thing at Australia. I’m really looking forward to watching it.
Throughout its history, England has been blessed with some fantastically talented second rows, but few have had such the broad spectrum of experiences as Palmer.
His Italian period is just one small segment of his incredibly diverse career.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena