TOM GALBRAITH seemed to have the rugby world at his feet when, aged just 21, he joined Edinburgh as a full-time professional during the summer of 2017. However, a long-standing groin issue which hadn’t been properly addressed meant the dream soon turned to nightmare and left him so disillusioned with the game that he could barely stand to be in the same room when it was on the television in the background.
Now, a change of focus in life has helped him find his way back to the sport, and the stand-off/centre is determined to play a leading role in helping the Southern Knights get over their faltering start to this inaugural Super6 season.
“My groin had really been sore for three seasons leading up to starting at Edinburgh and playing through the pain was something I was trying to get used to,” he explains. “It is a tricky place to be as a young player because I wasn’t able to perform at my best, and I always felt like it was getting worse – but because I was really desperate to break through, especially once I got the pro contract, I felt I really had to try to make something of this one year I had to prove myself.
“It was with that extra load of a professional pre-season that it really just got too much for me. Having taken anti-inflammatories for quite a long time, I came off them and it was sore all the time, even when I was lying in bed.
“I actually had a few weeks off all training because I had an incident when my younger cousin shot me in the eye with a nerf gun – I actually went blind in that eye for a while which was pretty scary at the time – and during that period my groin didn’t get any better even though I wasn’t doing any strenuous training at all, so it was becoming more and more apparent that this was potentially more than just a problem that I had to manage.
“I decided that I was going to try to get through to the pre-season games, because I knew there would be a few guys missing and I felt if I was able to pick up 20 minutes it would give Cockers [Richard Cockerill] – who hadn’t signed me – a chance to see me play. And then if I had to take some time off after that then I at least would have been able to show face. But, unfortunately, the week leading up to our first internal game my groin gave up completely.”
Galbraith ended up going under the surgeon’s knife to get a bilateral abductor reattachment and abdominal mesh, which is as complicated and invasive as it sounds. “Really, it is an absolute mess,” he explains. “They go in and re-attach your abductors on either side and put a mesh through the bottom of your stomach to re-attach it. You have two big gnarly scars either side of your groin and the first three weeks after it were pretty hellish. I wasn’t able to get in and out of bed myself.”
That was on 11th November. He returned to training in January, but rehab was a slow process and time was not on his side. “I ended up becoming fit to play again pretty much as the season ended, by which point my contract was up and I hadn’t been offered a new deal.
“It was an interesting period,” he adds, with deliberate understatement. “At the time I was absolutely gutted because being a professional rugby player was what I really wanted to be, and the excitement had been huge when I started at Edinburgh.
“After I’d had the operation, I had started to think about how I was not in a great position to get re-signed. I hadn’t shown Cockers anything, really. I knew that eight weeks of pre-season wasn’t enough for him to offer me a contract so I thought that, at best, I might be able to scrape a one-year deal on really low money – but when they started signing players over Christmas I was pretty sure that was it. When he told me in mid-January that I was getting released, even though I knew it was coming it hit home pretty hard.
“Coming into training is pretty bleak in that situation – training separately, doing gym, rehab and running in a straight line for an hour with very little variation in the sessions – with no real prospect of picking up a contract anywhere else. The only driving force to get me out of bed was – not rugby – but trying to make sure that I wouldn’t have discomfort in my day-to-day life because I hadn’t rehabbed properly.
“It sounds bad, I suppose, but all I wanted to do was get out of that environment, because everything was moving on and gearing towards next season and I knew I wasn’t a part of it.
“Very late on I realised that I needed to get serious about starting a new career path, so that’s when I decided to accept the offer I had previously received from Northumbria University to study accounting.”
At that stage, Galbraith felt like he was finished with rugby altogether, but decided in June 2018 to accept an invitation from fellow Edinburgh squad member Mark Bennett – who had been rehabbing from an ACL injury at the same time – to play for the School of Hard Knocks charity team at the Edinburgh City Sevens.
“That was the first time I had touched a rugby ball for something like 15 months,” he recalls. “The thing that was great for me about that was that in the pro-environment there can be quite a lot of ‘sapping’ – there seems to be a lot of players who give the impression that they are not really enjoying their rugby – so having come from where I had been to playing with guys who were doing it completely for the fun of it, to see that look of enjoyment on their faces, it reminds you of why you first fell in love with the game.
“It was a group of us from different clubs thrown together, and it just took rugby back to its basics for me – meeting new people, having a few beers afterwards, it was really great.”
After that summer he headed off to university and was pleasantly surprised at how much he enjoyed working with spreadsheets and calculators as opposed to tackle-bags and rucking-shields.
“I found it really interesting and rewarding,” he says. “I kept thinking to myself: ‘I’m sure I am going to start finding this boring soon.’ But that hasn’t happened yet. I got a job this summer working in an accounting firm which I really enjoyed. It is quite a nice thing to go into because you can still have that career mindset you have as a rugby player, with an overall goal and certain career steps to get there.
“It has been a hell of a turnaround for me,” he adds. “When I signed for Edinburgh, I just thought it was the greatest thing ever and I couldn’t think of trying to do anything other than being a professional rugby player, and then it completely went the other way – which is the side of the game you never really hear about – but fortunately I found it wasn’t the end of the world.”
He played last season for Northumbria University in the BUCs Super Rugby competition, which involves the top 10 university sides in England and Wales – with Lewis Berg (now of Watsonians) his centre partner, and George Bordill (Ayrshire Bulls) in the back-row – but found the travel hard going.
“We had two weeks in a row where we got on a bus at 9am to play away against Cardiff Uni and then Cardiff Met, drove all the way to Wales, played for 80 minutes, and then got straight back on the bus to come home,” he explains. “There was no beers, not long into the journey you start realising how sore you are, there isn’t much room to get comfortable so that you can sleep, it gets to 2am and you are stuck in roadworks on the M1, and I just thought it was ridiculous. After my first game we got in at 5am and I was getting up for lectures the at 9am the next day. So, it frustrated me, and I just didn’t think it was worth it.”
Then word reached him that Rob Chrystie, who had coached him during the two year spell he spent at Melrose after leaving Glenalmond College in the summer of 2014, and who had also run the Rugby Performance course at Edinburgh College he’d enrolled in for the first of those years, was keen to get him back involved with the Southern Knights.
A three-and-a-half hours round trip to training and back is hardly an insignificant commitment, but those previous two years at The Greenyards, during which time he picked up 19 caps for the Scotland Under-20s team, had been the happiest of his rugby-playing life.
“I knew there was a lot of guys going to be in the Southern Knights squad who I had played with before at Melrose and who I enjoyed being around so that was the main reason that I really wanted to sign,” he states. “I just wanted to really enjoy my rugby again because, if I am being honest, I hadn’t really done that since playing Under-20s.
“After that I had been sent off to play for London Scottish on an SRU academy contract as part of the lead-in to joining Edinburgh full-time, and that had been quite on and off. It was when their deal with the SRU was a bit up in the air so it was a weird situation. Then, obviously, my year with Edinburgh was an absolute flop, and while I enjoyed aspects the uni rugby other parts frustrated me. So, I was just keen to come back and play, and to try and start enjoying it again, to get back to the place where it all started for me.”
It hasn’t been a completely happy homecoming so far, with the Southern Knights currently zero from three this season, but Galbraith says he is confident that the squad can turn things around.
“We feel that rather than being out-played we have been shooting ourselves in the foot by making too many individual errors and bad decisions,” he insists. “So, the positive way of looking at it is we can only go up from here, and we are quite confident that we should manage to do that. The key is to make sure we start doing that soon, preferably against Boroughmuir Bears at Meggetland on Sunday.”
As for his longer term rugby ambitions, Galbraith – who turns 24 at the end of February – doesn’t really covet a return to the professional game.
“It is not something I’ve spoken about much, but I don’t think it is for me,” he says. “I hope this doesn’t make me sound bitter, because I don’t think I am, but I went through quite a long period of really not enjoying rugby – not enjoying watching it or being around it in anyway – and it took me quite a lot of time to get back to even being able to tolerate it in the background – so, now that I am back to being able to talk about it passionately and being able to enjoy watching it, I think I’d quite like to keep it that way.
“I certainly feel like I want to get my degree and start my professional training and become a chartered accountant before I make any decisions. And I’m a realist so I don’t see myself being offered a contract of any real worthwhileness at my age.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and when I speak to people now, I tell them it was a blessing in disguise because I don’t think I was quite good enough to be the out-and-out best player starting,” he continued. “I think I was good enough to stay as a pro but I’d have always been fighting to make the grade.
“I hadn’t been enjoying my rugby for a while and I now feel like a decision that I needed to make was made for me. I’m not sure if that is a cop-out way of looking at it, but when I got into my accountancy stuff I realised that I was happy again and was feeling fulfilled by what I was doing.
“In recent internationals there has been seven or eight guys I played Under-2os with in the match-day 23, which is wicked. People ask if I am gutted when I see these former team-mates doing so well while I have been left behind, but I don’t feel that at all. I think I enjoy it more watching the games – and more than the result I am wanting to see them do well because it is just quite cool seeing them progress.”