AT a time when everyone involved in professional rugby is having to get used to the idea that there is going to be less money swirling around the game for the foreseeable future than there has been in the recent past, Nic Groom provides a timely reminder that the sport should be – and needs to be – about more than just bumper pay packets and eye-watering bonuses.
Discussions between Scottish Rugby and its employees are ongoing, and nobody wants to see anyone losing out because of a public health crisis which they had no control over, but the reality is that with the business seeking £14million in cost reductions and determined not to have any redundancies, wages – which account for 52 percent of outgoings last year – are going to be squeezed further than they already have been. And this will inevitably lead to players and other staff questioning what it is they want to get out of the game.
“There has got to be more to the game than just rocking up and winning,” says Groom. “My view is that you play rugby for 10 years of your life if you are lucky, and if you live to 80 then that’s a small slice of your life.
“Certainly, all my big memories from the game come from the culture and values it gives us on and off the pitch, and those are the things that are going to make me a better person. One day I’ll have some great stories to tell off the back of that.
“And one day I will return to the amateur game, when the time is right – I can’t say how many seasons but I’ll definitely be back out there having a laugh one day.
“That’s where me roots are. I came straight out of school having been in the Western Province Academy and went to play in the Varsity Cup with University of Cape Town, and the culture around rugby there and what it taught me re-ignited my love for the game and re-cemented the reasons why I play. So why not [go back to playing club rugby]? They were good times!”
A labour of love
It is clear that Groom’s passion for the game runs deep, but he acknowledges that as with all enduring love affairs, there has been ups and downs along the way, including moments when he has had to look inside himself to find a way to make it work. His early months with Edinburgh after signing for the club last summer is case in point.
“I felt like a robot on the field, but that’s no-one’s fault but my own,” he explains. “At the beginning of my career, I was someone who took risks, who liked to play what they see, who didn’t think about things too much, but over time I sort of became a box-ticker.
“I played back-to-back seasons and towards the end it became easier to play a certain way, but that’s not who I am. So, the self-awareness is about [identifying] what really makes me tick when I enjoy the game, what brings the best out of me, and I think I’ve got a good idea of what that looks like now.
“The reasons I play the game are maybe a bit old school,” he adds. “I play rugby because I love the game, and there are things that maybe got in the way of that in the past, which is part of the natural cycle to an extent because I have played a lot of rugby in my career. But I now know how I behave and play when I am at my best, and in terms of perspective it is about being aware of that and using the opportunity to make some amazing memories.”
It will have helped Groom that Edinburgh as a team went through a similar process this season as they climbed to the summit of PRO14 Conference B and qualified for the quarter-final stage of the Challenge Cup before the Covid lockdown struck – developing their style from dogged competitors playing a limited game-plan, to being a side able to utilise some of the most exciting wide players in European club rugby in the shape Darcy Graham, Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn.
When rugby returns in Scotland a week on Saturday, Groom and his Edinburgh team-mates will have a chance to not only claim the scalp of their great Glasgow Warriors rivals, but also secure a spot in the PRO14 play-offs for only the second time in the club’s history. The stakes are high, but Groom is hopeful that the unique circumstances mean that the match won’t be the sort of cagey affair which so often characterise such contests.
“I hope there will be a bit more freedom because we’re not walking in with heavy amounts of analysis,” he says. “If there’s nothing we can review, then we’ll look for more opportunities for people to express themselves. Hopefully guys who have only been able to focus on their own games will be able to paint a different picture.”
This should not be misinterpreted as putting style over substance, because while Groom wants to see players express themselves, it is only because he believes that is the way for his team to achieve the result they are after.
“It could go either way,” he added. “If there’s any complacency there then you’ll lose. These highly charged games don’t just come down to the best side necessarily winning, there are other factors at play. We need to do all we can to make sure we’re on the right side of the result.”