It was interesting to read this week that Rory McIlroy, the world’s number one golfer, refers to his meltdown on the last day of the Masters in 2011 as ‘the most important day of his career.’ Too often in sport, people can concentrate on when things go right as ‘defining’. Yet, perhaps obviously, it is when life goes wrong that we learn most about ourselves, other people and the sport to which we are dedicated.
Luke Baldwin cuts an uneasy figure. One who has been through a fair amount this last year. He sits opposite me at the table, wanting to put a side of the story across which he feels hasn’t been aired. His departure from Bristol, in light of his announcement to sign for Worcester next season, was quick. He felt he had to write an open letter to the fans, whom he describes as some of the best he’s played in front of, but that didn’t really say what he wanted it to. He’s not remorseful about the manner of his departure and in fact understands why certain things had to be done. And he doesn’t resent his time with Bristol, but then again, he doesn’t strike you as the type of chap to regret too much.
Baldwin is honest, almost to the point of seeming naive at times. But then comes a maturity and positivity that you can’t help admire. An ambition to want to work hard and do his best, accept what he can’t change but ultimately, just be given a chance. He speaks with a frankness that is a little unusual in a professional sportsman.
“Bristol, for whatever reason, didn’t go my way,” he begins. “I’m not bitter about what happened. Sometimes in sport, there are things you can’t control. I don’t feel I was given a fair chance but every player will say that, won’t they? I tried to get onside with Sean (Holley) and Robbo (Andy Robinson) but for whatever reason it didn’t work out. I’d had conversations with Robbo about my future a few times, he’d said positive things, but that didn’t translate into picked teams. Those are the things you can’t really do much about, they had a vision and it didn’t seem to include me.”
Baldwin left Saracens and Bedford, the team he was on loan with from the Barnet outfit, half way through the 2013/14 season. A call from the southwest and the opportunity to have a tilt at the Premiership was too good to refuse. Bristol missed out on promotion, losing both legs of the play-off final against London Welsh, a side who have subsequently and ignominiously achieved just one try scoring bonus point in the top flight this season.
“When I first got there, I had a good tussle for the jersey with Ruki Tipuna and by the end of that season I felt I was number one. Ruki went off to Newcastle and I knew that they were going to bring in a name. Dwayne (Peel) arrived and also Hampo (Craig Hampson) from Leeds. But right from preseason I just wasn’t in the mix. I’d fallen out of favour somehow. Perhaps I didn’t take an opportunity early on, but I felt there were times where I could have been given another chance. They (management) said I had things to develop but I felt I was being ignored.”
I ask him about how his time at Bristol was different to that of Saracens, after all he’d played third or fourth fiddle there?
“At Sarries, I knew the players in front of me were playing better than me and the level was higher. When I got to Bristol I’d played a fair amount of good Championship rugby, and I just didn’t see the difference in what I was doing. There’s enough rugby with the league and B&I Cup to operate a rotation basis, especially before Christmas, and give everyone a fair crack of the whip. I wasn’t given that. I genuinely felt that I wasn’t going to be given another contract by Bristol so I was very surprised when it came.”
I ask him about telling Andy Robinson that he wanted to leave. Did you tell him you had an offer from Worcester?
“I started by saying I just wasn’t going to re-sign with Bristol. I then mentioned Worcester was the option and we went back and forth a few times that week. He then asked me to hold off making a decision until after the game at the weekend. I was on the bench and I thought I’d get some playing time to try and coax me back. I got two minutes at the end of a game we’d won comfortably. It was really frustrating but it kind of made up my mind for me. I left on the Tuesday.”
Bristol have a very good chance of playing Premiership rugby next year, but by moving to Worcester you feel their chance is stronger?
“No. I think that is an obvious conclusion for people to jump to, but it’s wrong. I don’t know if Worcester will get promoted. What I do know is that their long-term plans are based around young players getting the chance to show what they can do. The Bristol model is not that. They are investing a lot of money in experienced players, not trusting the potential of players like me. That is how it is, both processes can work but obviously, for me, I prefer the Worcester model.”
What of Bristol should they not get promoted? Mr Lansdown has deep pockets but surely the goal is Premiership Rugby and if this isn’t attained again, questions will have to be asked won’t they?
“They’re under pressure at Bristol. They need to get it right this year, a lot of money has been put down and I feel there will be repercussions if the Premiership isn’t reached. Dean Ryan at Worcester has a different outlook, a five-year deal with a long-term view. That, in itself, probably lends itself to a different approach. Maybe that’s why I like it; Worcester act a little bit more like a team from the Championship trying to win its way back to the Prem.”
But haven’t you got to think like a Premiership side to get into the Premiership?
“Bristol are a Championship team, they’ve been there for quite some time. I was aware of comments made towards other teams and players that were derogatory and arrogant. I was embarrassed by some of the things we did and said. The billboards around town saying we’d scored more points that Saracens are the wrong message in my opinion. For me, Bristol have not played the rugby this season which you are able to be arrogant about. Yes, Bristol are a good side, going forward as good as anyone, but there have been too many close run games to adopt a ‘we don’t belong in this league’ outlook. We said the wrong things about the teams around us and that attitude, in my view, needs to change.”
So the fit was wrong for you at Bristol, what have you learnt about yourself?
“A lot. I’ve made mistakes but I stand by my feeling of having no regrets. I’ve made some very good friends at Bristol and the club deserves the best. I genuinely hope it can get back into the top flight. It wasn’t right for me but I needed to experience that. I’m hoping Worcester will get a better player because of my time at Bristol. My goal remains to play at the highest level I can.”
Baldwin is still young enough to make a big name for himself in the sport. And you can only hope that his next step does allow him the chance he deserves. He speaks like a man wounded by circumstance, rueful of the bruises but desperate to try and make the best out of a bad position. Young players coming into the game may get a little blinded by stories where professionals have had things work out for them. Too often, the opposite is true. How we react to those situations is perhaps a better measure of what we can achieve in sport.
Accepting where you’ve gone wrong takes courage and making sure you don’t make the same mistake again, takes wisdom. And the wiser we get, the more discomfort we have to endure. But as McIlroy himself will tell you: no pain, no green jacket.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.