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IN-DEPTH: Tom Rowland - From Ball Boy To The Big Time

A week is a long time in sport, just ask Tom Rowland.

The 18-year-old, a Year 13 pupil at Bristol Grammar School, made his Bristol debut as a 75th minute substitute during Sunday’s Anglo-Welsh Cup defeat to Exeter Chiefs – yet this Friday he’ll return to his usual match day duties on the other side of the whitewash, as a club ball boy when Bristol take on Harlequins in the Aviva Premiership.

“It’s all been pretty surreal,” says Rowland, who returned to lessons on Monday with a spring in his step.

“I remember warming up and running past the guys I usually work with as a ball boy - it didn’t feel right, but I’m so proud to have made by debut with all of my family and friends there to support me.

“It was an awesome experience; just throughout the week as well, training with all of the players I’ve been looking up to for so many years – it was quite a surreal experience.

“We had an Under 18 training session on the Monday evening of that week and Mark Irish mentioned to me that there was a possibility that they might need me for the bench. He just briefly mentioned it so I thought: ‘it would be great if it happened’ but nothing would come of it.

“But the next day I was making breakfast before school and I got a text from (academy manager) Mike Hall saying: ‘you’re on the bench this weekend and we’re going to get you in for training on Wednesday and Friday and get you off school’ - I was just over the moon.”

DEBUTANT: Tom Rowland laps up the Ashton Gate atmosphere before heading on for his club debut (Photo: JMP UK). 

Having played less than 80 minutes of senior rugby in his fledgling career – and only 18 months in the front row after moving from number eight - Rowland admits the professional game moves at a speed he’s far from used to. But one thing he’s definitely up to speed with is the atmosphere of an Ashton Gate match day, albeit from a very different viewpoint.

“I’ve been ball boy now for about three seasons and it’s been good,” he says. “I’ve done two seasons in the Championship and then this season in the Premiership. It was so surreal, just sat on the bench watching the game and realising that I could be coming on. When I was warming up as well, I had my friends covering the ball boy shift for me and it was mad, I just felt that I should be there with them, but I was on the bench.”

It’s a quite remarkable story for a player who has spent most of this season battling away in the Academy Under-18 squad under the watchful eye of academy forwards coach, Mark Irish – a man who knows a thing or two about the rough and tumble of playing in the front row. Rowland also featured in the Aviva A League before Christmas as Bristol United took on Exeter Braves – and Irish believes the loose head is developing well.

“Tom is a great character to work with and he’s got a huge amount of potential,” he says. “He’s got a great work ethic as well and we’re all really pleased with how he is developing. It was great to see a young man making his debut for the club.”

PLAUDITS: Head coach Mark Tainton congratulates Rowland at the final whistle (Photo: JMP UK).

Rowland’s eventual aim is to earn himself an academy contract at a club he has grown up supporting and working for, but in the mean time there’s the small matter of three A Levels to complete – and it’s not only on the rugby pitch where Tom has lofty ambitions.

“I’ve got my A Levels to do this summer in Economics, Geography and PE and then my dream is to get an academy contract with Bristol and hopefully to combine it with university studies as well.

“It was nice being back at school, I’ve got lots of catching up to do having had two days off last week, but it was great to see everyone and all of my school supports me really well.

“I’ve had lots of pats on the back and loads of messages, it’s been really good.”

BIG FUTURE: Tom Rowland warms up on the Ashton Gate pitch ahead of his club debut against Exeter Chiefs (Photo: JMP UK).

Six minutes was all Tom managed as Bristol fell to a convincing defeat at the hands of a star-studded Chiefs line-up, but it was enough to earn plaudits from supporters and teammates alike, including captain on the night, Marc Jones - who Tom would have been far more used to drying and handing a rugby ball to, than packing down alongside.

“Tom Rowland, remember the name”, tweeted Jones on Sunday night. High praise indeed and both Jones and the Ashton Gate faithful will be following this young man’s progress with interest.

In the mean time, Tom will return to his pitch side stool and continue fetching balls as last weekend’s teammates battle to retain their Premiership status. But he’ll do so clear in the knowledge that, with the right attitude, work rate and a bit of luck, last Sunday won’t be the last time he pulls on the famous blue and white hoops at Ashton Gate.

By Will Carpenter.

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