“I have so much admiration — Tommy catching a bus every morning, going to live in digs in Leicester at the age of 16, like a footballer from another age. He’d make his way to college.”
So said Tommy Reffell’s old teacher at Pencoed Comprehensive School, Simon King, four years ago, commenting on his former pupil’s bold decision to head for Leicester Tigers as a raw teenager.
Fellow Pencoed product Sam Costelow took the same route as well. Costelow is now beginning to prosper with the Scarlets, while Reffell is a Gallagher Premiership title winner with Leicester Tigers. Good on both of them.
Read more: Wales star so good he leaves England fans ‘dreaming of what could have been’
Teak-tough flanker Reffell played a full part in his club’s 15-12 win over Saracens in Saturday’s final at Twickenham. There may be flashier No. 7s on the scene, with Reffell a team player to his core who leaves the Hollywood stuff to others, but there are also few more effective at the basics of the role.
The former Wales U20s captain is quick around the park, never far away from the action and relentless in his pursuit of scraps. A number of times the ball fell loose against Saracens only for Reffell to react quickest and claim possession for his side.
But maybe his strongest point is his ability over the ball. Against Saracens, Reffell was at the heart of a five-minute spell when the Londoners were repeatedly relieved of possession. You can read more here about the ‘silent assassin who plays like Warburton’.
Working in tandem with the superb Argentinian hooker Julian Montoya, Reffell helped put pressure on Saracens with one steal a particularly text-book affair. Anticipating the possibility of a turnover, he swooped with the speed of a hungry wolf laying claim to a lamb chop. The ball was then laid back on a plate for the Leicester backs to use.
Awarding him an eight out of 10 in their player ratings, WalesOnline’s sister title Leicestershire Live wrote: “The Welshman is genuinely a world-class jackler, and the best in the world step up in the biggest moments. The most critical one was on the Tigers 22m line, and stopped a hugely promising attacking opportunity. The Welshman showed his improving physicality too, with 12 tackles — a team high — contributing to cover defense out wide very well.”
MailOnline reckoned Reffell “always looked a breakdown threat”, and RugbyPass referred to the openside as the “Tigers’ turnover king” and said he had a ding-dong battle with Ben Earl, the Premiership’s player of the season.
Reffell isn’t the type to let praise go to his head, though. Of more importance to him will be the respect he commands from his peers.
There was a moment during play at Twickenham when he received a pat on the back from Jasper Wiese, the official man of the match on the day. Perhaps the South African had been impressed by the way Reffell played in Saracens’ faces throughout his time on the field, or maybe he was awed by the way the Welsh youngster rode a direct hit from Maro Itoje at one point. Itoje smashed into Reffell while clearing him out at a ruck in a connection which might have laid low others, but Reffell took the treatment and just got on with the game.
King, his former mentor at Pencoed Comprehensive School, is justifiably a proud man. “Tommy has developed into an outstanding rugby player,” he told WalesOnline. “Leicester are a club with great values and they identified five or six years ago that Tommy would fit in perfectly.
“He has incredible commitment, the right attitude and a will to succeed. What is special about him as well is that his core values of him are still what they were when he left Pencoed to head for the Tigers in the first place. He is respectful of others and goes the extra mile for his team-mates. And he’s a warrior on the field.
“His values are the values of Pencoed. I know people are very proud of him there and so they should be. It’s great to see him doing so well. For him to be part of a Gallagher Premiership-winning side means a huge amount. “
Fancifully, there has even been a call for Eddie Jones to try to poach Reffell for England before he makes his bow for Wales. “We know he has been called up by Wales for their summer tour but he’s not capped yet and so darn good,” said the Ruck website under a “Steal him from Wales” headline. “If anyone would enjoy stealing a player touted as a future Tigers captain from under the nose of the Welsh, it would be Eddie Jones,” they continued.
It isn’t going to happen. When asked in 2019 about the possibility of featuring for England, Reffell said: “I haven’t thought about that. I’m Welsh.”
A Test debut will surely come his way with Wales in South Africa this summer, setting the matter for good.