This article was originally published in October 2012. It is republished here for the 10-year anniversary of 'Bloodgate'.
April 12th 2009 – Tom Williams is instructed to fake an injury during the Heineken Cup Quarter Final by biting on a blood capsule. The act enables Harlequins to make a ‘blood substitution’ which is the only way to get their kicker back on the field to try and win the match. The scandal that became known as ‘Bloodgate’ brought the game of rugby from the back pages to the front. Bloodgate made Tom a household name throughout the country and beyond. The ramifications were considerable; jobs were lost, bans were put in place, and laws were changed. On a personal note Tom had the toughest two years of his life.
May 26th 2012 – Tom Williams lifts the Aviva Premiership Trophy having scored a try in Harlequins victory over Leicester Tigers at Twickenham. So the big question is how did Tom manage to turn it around from the lowest low to playing a major role in securing the first Premiership Trophy in the club’s history? Firstly, we will briefly look back at the events that immediately followed the scandal.
“I was naive as to my culpability; the club assured me that I would not be the main focus of attention”.
As the days passed Tom quickly realised that he was to be the only focus of attention. Tom received a 12 month ban whilst others central to the scandal were not issued with any form of punishment other than a fine for the club.
“During and after the initial ruling I was physically ill with stress and lost two stone, it was the worst period of my life. I remember telling my girlfriend Alex that I had no fight left in me and I seriously contemplated walking away from rugby.”
It was Alex who said something that really stuck in Tom’s mind “You can finish on this, or finish on your own terms and be remembered for something other than Tom Williams – Bloodgate”. Tom recognised this as a turning point in his evaluation of the event. Whilst Tom acknowledged his role in the incident and regretted his actions, following independent legal counsel, he was made more conscious of the fact that he had been made a scapegoat. Tom made the difficult decision to come clean about the whole thing, meaning he would have to implicate others.
“This was the most stressful time of all for me, even though I was telling the truth. That was the biggest dilemma as I felt a responsibility to the other people involved, but ultimately it was my name and my life.”
As a result of the new evidence, which clearly showed that Tom was not acting alone, Tom’s ban was reduced to four months whilst the head coach left the club and was banned from rugby for three years, and the club Physio and Doctor also received lengthy bans. Tom recognised that the impact of coming clean was as long lasting as the event itself. However, he was determined to put the whole thing behind him and concentrate on his rugby when he returned after his ban. Yet this proved more difficult than first thought.
“When I came back from my ban I was inconsistent at best, I cared much more about what people thought of me and was very aware of my raised profile. As a result I would no longer back myself but give the ball to someone else and support them – I did this for the best part of two years”.
During this period Alex referred to watching a ‘semi-skimmed’ Tom.
“I was petrified of making a mistake, petrified of public scrutiny. I just wanted a low profile and not to attract any attention. My confidence had gone”.
The coaches and managers quickly picked up on this and started to ask him where his ‘x-factor’ was. This was a frustrating time for Tom as he was performing consistently well in training, being one of the top trainers in the squad, week in week out, but did not convert this form onto the pitch.
“I only really started coming good last season – nearly three years after Bloodgate. It was a case of something clicking in my head. I just said to myself you can do this in training so just go and do it on the pitch. It was a slow build of confidence towards backing myself again, trusting in my ability.”
Tom acknowledges that there were a number of contributing factors to this. Firstly, it was clear from talking to coaches in his mid-year appraisal that his life at Harlequins would be drawing to an end unless something changed.
“This was a turning point as I made up my mind that this news would not have a negative impact on the way I played. I saw it that I had no choice but to perform.”
This news of job insecurity was coupled with the fact that he was one month away from becoming a father for the first time. Tom’s performances started getting better as his confidence in his ability returned.
“I started playing for the future, as opposed to thinking about the past. My confidence started to build and build – I definitely started to care less about what people were saying, or what I imagined they were saying. All I really wanted to do was to perform to the best of my ability and go home and see my son.”
“I re-built my confidence with a succession of small things and importantly concentrating on doing the basics really well. This started on my first opportunity back in the first team since returning from injury and the appraisal.”
Harlequins were playing away at European giants Toulouse and Tom came off the bench with 20 minutes to go, with Quins down on the scoreboard. Tom’s first act was to chase the kick off, tackle the French International winger Vincent Clerc and in the same movement turn the ball over. This was followed by several other telling contributions. Harlequins went on to win and after the game the Director of Rugby told Tom that they would not have won without his impact.
“It was a combination of luck, being in the right place at the right time, but also the acknowledgement of my own skill and ability.”
Tom’s confidence and subsequent performances grew from that game and culminated in scoring the first try in the Premiership final.
“It’s funny in the week leading up to the final, Bloodgate did not enter my mind once. I was just really looking forward to playing, and playing well. I had the best game I’ve ever had for Quins. I was playing with a real confidence and every decision that I made was the correct one.”
When quizzed around the specifics that allowed him to re-gain this confidence Tom acknowledged that it was not just one point but a number of contributing factors.
- Slow Building of confidence – “The Toulouse game was definitely a catalyst in rebuilding my confidence.” Tip – Recognise, record and most importantly learn from success to build confidence
- Going back to basics – “I really looked at my game and concentrated on doing the simple things really well which helped re-build my confidence in my ability.” Tip – Have a more regular focus on process goals, performance and outcome goals will take care of themselves
- Life outside of rugby – “Freddie (Tom’s son) definitely gave me perspective which allowed me to play with a more care free attitude.” Tip – It is key to have a number of identities i.e. not to see yourself solely as a rugby player or team leader
- Fighting for my career – “This made me start playing for the future as opposed to thinking about the past.” Tip – As hard as it can be it is important to recognise what is and what isn’t in our control and then focus on the controllables.
Over three years ago Tom was asked to do something for the greater good of the team which he did without thought and recognises that this was wrong. So what has changed? Today Tom reflects back on the past few years and acknowledges that,
“I’m a better tackler than I ever was, I’m a better kicker, a better passer off both hands and I’ve got a better rugby brain than ever. I know I have all those skills and I know that if I put them all together I am the best winger at this club and I truly believe that – that belief is what I had to find again after Bloodgate.”
So now when faced with a difficult decision Tom takes a moment and asks himself ‘Is this the right thing to do? Would I be proud of the decision I make going forward?’, and then acts on this, and this alone.