Interview: Thom Evans, former Scotland rugby international

Thom Evans in his former guise as a Scotland international. Picture: Getty
Thom Evans in his former guise as a Scotland international. Picture: Getty
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TWO years on from the near fatal collision in Cardiff, Scotland’s former winger tells Iain Morrison of his ambition to make it as a sprinter

IT IS two years almost to the day since Thom Evans’ world turned turtle. Thirty-six minutes into the Wales v Scotland match at the Millennium Stadium on 13 February 2010 the electric winger ran full tilt into Wales’ Lee Byrne with his head hitting the full-back’s midriff straight on.

It looked an innocuous challenge, no worse than a hundred others you’ll witness in every match at every level but Evans went down and he stayed there, prostrate on the Cardiff turf which is probably just as well. Vertebrae in his neck had slipped out of alignment and, according to the SRU doctor James Robson, another millimetre or so would have resulted in the end of Evans’ life rather than just his rugby career.

The flying Scotsman was in Cardiff on Friday, opening a new specialist spinal unit at the hospital that cared for him in those fraught few weeks after the accident. He hasn’t been back to the Millennium Stadium since that fateful day and he won’t be there this afternoon either, for what he refers to as “personal reasons”.

“I’m sure I’ll go back to the stadium one day,” he says in a manner which suggests the exact opposite, “but I’m slightly wary with all that’s gone on.”

Instead Evans will be commentating on today’s match from a television screen but not for the BBC. You can catch his insights into the action on the English speaking version of Al Jazeera. The only explanation he offers is that the bills need to be paid because his new nine-to-five costs rather than earns him money.

Evans was fortunate because he not only got full movement back following that Cardiff accident but, at the relatively young age of 26, he is pursuing an alternative sporting career in athletics. The speedster is appearing next Sunday at the indoor meet at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall, competing over 60 metres, although his coach Margot Wells, wife and trainer to Olympic gold medallist Allan, insists that he still runs like a rugby player rather than an athlete.

What’s the difference? Well, the smart answer is about three-quarters of a second, which is several lifetimes over a 60m sprint. Dwain Chambers will clock something around 6.5 seconds for 60m against Evans’ time of 7.25sec but Margot offers a more interesting analogy.

“An athlete is like a drag car,” she explains. “It goes flat out fast using absolutely every asset available, both mental and physical. A rugby player is like a stock car, it gets beaten up and it comes in to get a dent bashed out and a paint re-spray and it’s sent back out to race again. That’s the difference and in the two races that Thom has done so far he has reverted to running like a rugby player when the pressure comes on.”

In his post-rugby days, Evans has dabbled in modelling – appearing on the catwalk at the Dressed to Kilt fashion show in New York – and acting, enrolling in a course in Hollywood. But he has put on hold his acting career and pretty much everything else besides to spend six days of the week training to be a sprinter with Wells. If he doesn’t make it in athletics it won’t be for the want of trying and I wonder out loud if perhaps he was always meant to be an athlete because of something he said in an interview when he first started out with Glasgow all those years ago.

At the time Evans insisted that his idea of sporting Nirvana was to compete in the Olympics although, after some reflection, he asked me not to print the passage because it wouldn’t look good shortly after signing on as a professional rugby player.

“I remember saying that!” he says. “I loved running like crazy when I was at school because I was a lot faster than the other kids. But I also loved rugby and after a while it dominated my life and athletics was placed on the back-burner. Remember, I always had the choice between running and rugby and I chose rugby. But athletics was a close second so I’m fortunate in that respect and I’m looking forward to seeing what I’m able to do.”

“I like the solo aspect of running because I have always felt like a bit of an individual. If the team won but I hadn’t played well I wasn’t happy whereas a real team player would just enjoy the fact that the team had won. In athletics you don’t have to rely upon anyone else, it’s simply the first man past the tape.”

Evans feels that his best distance is probably 200 or even 400 metres but, as he points out, the sprinter needs to run fast over the first 100 of any distance if he’s going to stand a fair chance of breaking the tape and he is taking whatever races he can get just for the experience right now which means 60 metres in Glasgow next Sunday.

The younger of the two Evans brothers still comes across as a diffident character quite at odds with the celebrity that stares out of the pages of the glossies from the arm of his model partner Kelly Brook. If anything, he appears even less sure of himself in his new career than when he was tearing up the Murrayfield tramlines.

He is grateful for the attention and support of the media and from family and friends alike but all the good will in the world doesn’t lessen any the obstacles between him and making a success of his new sport. There is a mountain of work ahead of him just to get to a position where he is competitive and he talks about the host of young up and coming sprinters in Scotland whose times he can reel off by rote having done his homework.

“The Commonwealth Games in 2014 [in Glasgow] are a target,” he concedes, “but I want to give it [athletics] everything in the summer which will give me a good indication of whether I have what it takes to be an athlete because I’m not going to waste my time if I don’t. The Games are definitely a goal but they are a long, long way off. It would be a dream come true but that is a long way off.”

“I feel really flattered that the press have given me so much attention but I am not expecting to set the world on fire next weekend. I am a long way from where I want to be and I’m still adjusting to a different sport.”

Sadly for the Glasgow paparazzi it appears unlikely that Kelly Brook will be trackside next Sunday at the Kelvin Hall, and that suits Evans just fine. “I’d rather Kelly came when I had a chance of winning rather than when I’m just starting out,” he says.

Instead, he’ll have Wells for company and it is his coach that knows what’s what in the ultra-competitive world of sprinting.

“He has a realistic chance of making the Commonwealth Games but so too do a whole load of other athletes,” she says. “Thom has a good engine, natural pace and he works hard. He’s done everything I’ve asked of him, I couldn’t ask for any more.

“All we are doing is having a go because until you try you never know. But we’re not playing at it, we’re giving it a right good go.”

TIMELINE: Wales 31 - 24 Scotland

SCOTLAND’S 2010 Six Nations match against Wales in Cardiff was one of the most extraordinary in the tournament’s storied history. The game featured a man-of-the-match performance from Dan Parks, Chris Paterson’s 100th cap, Scotland turning a ten-point lead into a seven-point deficit and, most shockingly, a life-threatening injury to Thom Evans.

7 mins: Chris Paterson requires treatment but remains on the field.

8 mins: John Barclay scores a try after barging his way through two tackles. Paterson adds the extras. Wales 0-7 Scotland.

15 mins: Stephen Jones kicks Wales’ first points with a penalty. Wales 3-7 Scotland.

18 mins: Dan Parks drops a goal. Wales 3-10 Scotland.

20 mins: Temporary replacement Max Evans latches on to Parks’ grubber for another try. Paterson misses the conversion. Scottish fans rub their eyes in disbelief. Wales 3-15 Scotland.

23 mins: Jones kicks a penalty. Wales 6-15 Scotland.

25 mins: Parks responds in kind. Wales 6-18 Scotland.

31 mins: On the day of his 100th cap Paterson finally gives up the uneven fight with a badly injured kidney.

36 mins: Thom Evans runs into Welsh fullback Lee Byrne in what looks an innocuous challenge. The Scottish wing lies prostrate upon the ground as the medics attend to him. Later the doctor claims that he was a millimetre or so away from death after injuring his neck. The accident ends his rugby career.

40 mins: Jones gains three points with the last kick of the half. Wales 9-18 Scotland.

Half time.

41 mins: Parks adds three more. Wales 9-21 Scotland.

44 mins: Sean Lamont delays his offload to Kelly Brown and the flanker’s “try” is wiped off because of the forward pass.

55 mins: After defending for a long time the Scots finally crack as fullback Byrne scores in the corner. Wales 14-21 Scotland.

65 mins: No one knows how but Shane Williams beats Brown to Parks’ hanging cross-field kick.

66 min: Parks adds another drop goal and the visitors have a ten-point advantage with 14 minutes still to play. Wales 14-24 Scotland.

70 mins: Replacement hooker Scott Lawson is shown a needless yellow card on the halfway line and the momentum is all with Wales.

71 mins: Jamie Roberts thinks he’s scored but the big Welsh centre is called back for obstruction.

77 mins: Leigh Halfpenny does score under the posts and Jones takes the quick conversion. Wales 21-24 Scotland.

78 mins: Byrne breaks through and is “tripped” by Phil Godman, who is yellow carded. Jones kicks the three to tie the match and there is still time for a restart with Scotland down to 13 players.

Wales 24-24 Scotland.

82 mins: Almost two minutes into the red numbers Shane Williams steps past an exhausted Scottish defence to score under the posts. Jones converts. Cardiff erupts. The Scots wonder what the hell just happened.

Final score: Wales 31-24 Scotland.