A Conversation with Tommy Wallace | By: Christian Portillo
*Note: A special thank you to Tommy Wallace for taking time after practice and film study to conduct this interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Thank you for doing this interview! I know that you just came back from practice and from watching film-how did that go and what is the learning environment that Coach Tim provides? How do you balance focusing on the small details and the bigger picture at the same time?
That’s a good question, a great way to start. With regards to our film sessions that we do, we try to focus on the thing that we also preach about-our tactics and the way we wish to play and an emphasis on what we call “microskills.” Watching film today, there must’ve been 20-25 different discussion points in each game that we had and we were breaking down the techniques and microskills that we wish to implement in our games. I think it really helps that we have such a wealth of knowledge coming from our coaches, our captain, and some of the senior leaders on the team because when you need to focus on the minute details like that, through a collective intelligence and through the proper guidance of our coaches, they set the standard of what we should be doing and our teammates just help us fine tune it. You end up watching film today and some of the stuff you see a year ago in which you were thinking, “Jeez, I don’t know what I could do to fix that,” [now] you have three or four of your friends offering you different opportunities and your coach pretty much saying, “Well yeah, but this is how we really want to play,” and it can really lead you down the right track. They don’t give you the answer, they give you enough alternatives and enough of a thought process to be able to figure it out on your own. So I think that’s a really strong thing that we do.
I saw you playing in the B-Side match on Saturday and you scored at least 4 tries; how does playing on the B-Side compare to playing on the A-Side? Do you have any advice that you try to give to the up-and-coming players?
With regards to the sides that we have, one of my favorite things is that you could put somebody on the A, B, or C side and the speed may change, but the patterns that we try to run and our philosophy really stays the same. That being said, playing in the B-Side match on Saturday was a blast and all, but there’s nothing quite like playing in an A-Side game, in a big game, or in a playoff game when you know the speed of play is there and you don’t even have to question anybody’s commitment-you can just tell that everybody who is on the field is going to run at you with 110% of what they have. If I can give any advice, it would be to recognize that speed of play and try to recapture it, manipulate it, do it in your own fashion, and as you do that that, as you really start picking up the pace, you can start seeing a little further in the game and at that point, it’s funny because you are running fast but in your mind, things are slowing down-you can even start thinking a couple of phases ahead if you’re in the right state of mind. I think a lot of it is just how you mentally prepare and what you’re going to bring to the table for the magnitude of each game, each match.
The regular season is winding down yet there are still some big games to play before heading into the playoffs (Cal and California Conference member Sacramento State). How would you assess the season as a whole so far? What would you say are your guys’ strengths and weaknesses that you need to work on heading into these next two games?
That’s another really good question. With the analysis that we do, I think we have a strength in our depth of the team, and in the commitment that guys show every single day to try and get the job done. With big games, you expect nothing but the best out of yourself and all of your teammates. I see it as one of those things where one of your strengths is that guys are, right now at this week, with this opponent lined up, willing to run through a brick wall to get a win for their friends and for their school and for the people that have put them there in that position in the first place.
Your dad, Johnny Wallace, is the play-by-play broadcaster for Gael Vision and Mike Wallace is your cousin and teammate. How have they influenced you not only as a rugby player, but as a person? Obviously SMC has that small-family centered environment to it, but you literally are part of a rugby family here at SMC with your dad and cousin being integral parts of the program. What does this mean to you? At what age did you pick up rugby?
Nick Downes is Mike Wallace’s cousin and we grew up together hanging out in the summertime in Sonoma. My family, on the Wallace side, my father’s side, has always been very dedicated but rugby was something that was picked up by my dad specifically. He has one brother-Mike’s dad. Nobody else played until my dad started in college and he got me into it as a kid because it was a great way to run around and get some hand-eye coordination in. We weren’t playing organized games, but we would go to weekly practices in San Francisco and I must have been 6 years old. I wasn’t even in school, but we would just go out once or twice a week and throw a ball around. That being said, I think I did get a lot of motivation to play Saint Mary’s rugby with Mike’s older brother, one of my older cousins, Jimmy Wallace, who played for Saint Mary’s under Tim [O’Brien] and graduated in about 2012 or so. So it’s always kind of been in the back of mind that I wanted to play rugby-my dad instilled that [in me] since a young age. When I was in middle school and found out that my cousin was going here [to Saint Mary’s] and was going on tour, that’s when the infatuation really began and I started really seeing myself as a Gael rugby player.
You and I both went to SH in San Francisco. Go Fightin’ Irish! Can you tell me about the impact that both SHCP and SFGG Rugby Club had on you in addition to your family?
It’s a beautiful relationship that I can have when I know that I’m as close with teammates that I have no blood relation to as a kid that I’ve been hanging out with and seeing ever since I’ve learned how to walk. It’s really not about genetics or anything, it’s just about what you and your friends can try and do and how you all think and feel when you’re with each other and if you’re going to back each other up when push comes to shove, and I think that’s what the experience of a rugby club means to me. It’s like having the perfect family because they love you and everything, but they don’t love you unconditionally, and if somebody else is getting in your way, they’re just as happy to step in and settle it with you. We’ve got a good thing going.
Let’s go Irish! Golden Gate rugby has been something that I’ve been around for a long time, they are the first club that I’ve ever joined. Including Saint Mary’s, they are the only two clubs that I’ve ever played for my entire life and I’m not going to lie, I kind of hope I can keep it that way. That environment was nice because I got a very social taste of rugby but at the same time I was lucky enough to know a bunch of higher up administrative figures and they really helped put up an idea of high performance into my head and setting a standard of excellence with the play that I wanted to accomplish. That really helped mold my identity as a kid and honestly, playing SFGG rugby is what had me transfer from a little high school in Marin County to where most of my teammates played, Sacred Heart Cathedral, where I played football with a couple of them, I wrestled with a couple of them for a year, and every single year I tried to drag out as many kids as I could to the rugby field to play for Golden Gate and I think the openness I had there with those guys really set the good standard of communication and of standards of acceptable behavior with my old teammates because I’ll tell you what, just like here, there we wanted to win, state championships were on our mind, and nothing less was selling ourselves short. It really helps when you can go from a concentrated effort in middle school to a concentrated effort in high school to coming to college and thinking, “I don’t know how I could raise it up another level,” and then next thing you know, you’re running at full speed on the day and you’re wondering, “Can it slow down, I remember playing rugby and everything seemed calm.”
Was there anyone in particular that you will always be grateful to for their coaching/mentoring/leadership?
At Golden Gate, I had a coach for my first couple of years, his name was Tony Wells, and he was a New Zealand man, who really knew his rugby. Him and his brother Grant both really knew their rugby-I believe they are from Christchurch, which is the biggest city in the southern island. Those guys had really great rugby brains and they put it into my mind as a younger guy that I wanted to be a back, I wanted to have good hands, good feet, good tackling, and really play a Kiwi style of rugby. I learned a lot of pattern and rugby IQ stuff from them. Another man who really helped me understand and hone my techniques of rugby is the former SF Pro Rugby coach Paul Keeler, who would let me attend the pre-season academy sessions with SFGG. With football though, there’s a good buddy of mine who I played with, his name is Jerry Peralta, and his dad was a former Sacred Heart Cathedral man himself and I went to Marin Catholic my freshman year to try and play under him. As soon as my freshman year was over, he dropped his position of head varsity coach to watch his son playing JV football at Sacred Heart Cathedral, another great reason for me to want to go because I really loved that man. He helped me get in, helped me figure everything else out, and I started playing football. He was even one of those guys, when it was a tossup between going to some other college in the country and maybe trying to play football or maybe playing a lower level of rugby, he just sat me down and said, “Look you’re a great player. Play rugby. You’re better at it than you are at football.” He really helped me reprioritize.
We also both took the Star Wars and Theology class for Jan Term. Does anything we read/learned/watched in class apply to the pitch or vice versa? Can you draw any connections between Star Wars and playing rugby?
Certainly. Stoicism. It’s really something that’s admired by rugby players. As much as you want to try and structure things, rugby is a game of chaos. You’ve got to be able to take either the good or the bad, whatever comes at you, with a little bit of an understanding that you know, that’s how it worked out this time but next play things could be very different, things could always change, not everything is within your control. It really makes you focus on, “What can I control to help my team win?” I think that certainly helps. Maybe also belief in the Force and some sort of a higher power to help you think that you’re on the right side of it but just that calm, collected kind of feeling that you need to have when things either go against you or when you’re kind of impressed by how well things have swung in your favor. Being able to ground yourself like that is really immense and kind of essential to having a good team and having the right vibe.
Any predictions for the The Last Jedi?
I don’t know, not a lot of prediction, I’m just as excited as the next fan to see it come out though.
What’s next for you? A fifth year? Entering the workforce upon graduation? Have you asked the fifth year guys for advice or do you already have a strong idea of what you want to do?
I’ve got a couple of different really cool options. I’ve applied to grad school here [at Saint Mary’s] and in a perfect world I’m here for another year and I’m playing a fifth year of rugby and I get out with a graduate degree. That being said, I’ve applied and haven’t heard anything about it yet. I want to put this in a way that doesn’t seem pessimistic-to me it seems realistic and the right thing to do. Right now, I’m just a senior and I haven’t been let in yet so I’ve got to look at everything I have now as if it’s my last opportunity. I want to take it to the furthest it can go and to the best extent that I can. That being said, if I’m given another opportunity, I’ve just got to find some way to reinvigorate myself and give it the exact same try that I’m doing now. Pretty much to the best of my ability.
As a speedy winger, what’s going through your mind when you break the line and see open field to run through-do your eyes get big, are you just focused on reaching the try line or not getting caught up to, etc.? What goes on inside the mind of Tommy Wallace?
That’s a great question. I’m not going to tell you everything because there’s a couple of secrets that I as a winger need to keep from any potential defenders out there. But one I can say is, and I’ve learned this from watching a lot of the classical style of rugby, is that when everyone else works the ball out to the wing, and it can fly through everyone else’s hands, the job of the wing is not to think. The job of the wing is to already be running and to finish. So whatever that means, however you’ve got to get it done, everyone put that ball in your hands and there’s no better feeling to me than thinking, “Alright, out of my 15 teammates, they’re trusting me right now with an opportunity to dot it down and give us some points. Who am I to try and keep those points from my team, you know?” Be it via kick, via running over somebody, or be it shaking somebody out of their shoes, it’s all about getting it under the bar and putting that thing down trying to get an easy seven points.
Obviously this Saturday is the Cal game. What is there to watch out for from Cal and what should fans expect of this top-five matchup? Is there anything to pay particular attention to-any potential key matchups, the scrums, lineouts, etc?
That’s a solid question. Northern California rugby is known for its mental aspect, we have a lot of great decision-makers in positions around this part of the state, and one thing that I think is going to be an issue with Cal is that it’s going to be a real cerebral battle between the 10s, the 15s, and the 9s. As a back you kind of love that sort of opportunity but for the forwards, it’s going to be a completely different game-they’re going to be throwing themselves at Cal and I would be hard-pressed to believe that Cal wouldn’t be doing the exact same thing. I think what the fans should expect is solid defense, great pattern work, and seeing 15 guys wearing red and blue that just want to win and do whatever they can to steal one at Cal.
Campus Recreation has been able to secure a bus to take students to the Cal game to cheer you guys on and to also enjoy downtown Berkeley. What would a good amount of crowd support at Berkeley mean to you guys as the visiting team at Witter Rugby Field?
That’s a good question. All of these are very good questions, I’m not going to lie Christian, I think you’ve got every single aspect of the kind of game that I want to talk about. With fan support, I’ll tell you what, I’ve played sports games where everyone is there and loud and it’s awesome, and then I’ve played sports games where you have no crowd and you’re still playing and you still love playing the game, but one of the strongest things I’ve felt is that a game like rugby is built around the community. Not just the players, but the fans, the people that support, the gracious alumni that put us out for tour, these people want to come out and watch just as good of a match that we want to play, you know? When they show up and are just as excited as we are to get going and watch kickoff start, it really galvinizes our unit and it can really make a guy go from thinking about himself to really thinking about the bigger picture, which is doing what you can for the best of the team and the program around it and those that support that.
97% of Spring Tour was funded by donations-how great does that feel as a student-athlete to have the opportunity to go to different countries, such as Ireland and Scotland this year, in large part because of alumni, parent, and fan support/donations?
It’s huge. I’m not going to beat around the bush. I don’t want to take away from what I just said about the support of fans and having a crowd there, you know, but as everyone probably feels once in a while, sometimes you have to try something new and sometimes people have the feeling of just picking up shop from where they are and pushing off to a different place in the world and trying it new and seeing if different results come. I think it’s a really strong thought to send ourselves to high-quality rugby countries like Ireland and Scotland and obviously New Zealand from our tour last year. I believe as a rugby player and as a supporter of growing the game inside our country is that some of the best things you can do as an individual is to be able to source and fund ideas like this just because. If one rugby team can create their own tour, it’s only going to reinvigorate other teams and get colleges asking the question, “Why not us-why can’t we travel-why don’t we get to go out and play against teams that are contracting players?” I think it draws a healthy comparison because some teams will be able to figure it out and some teams will do things a little socially and a team like Saint Mary’s will go figure everything out and go in there and want to beat every team. It’s a great kind of feeling when you go into another country and the only thing you’re thinking of is that these people don’t know me. They didn’t even know I existed until maybe about 24 hours before the match when they get some semblance of film or a roster of something like that, you know? It’s great because you get to come in as an unmarked opponent and kind of set a whole new stamp into the ground, especially when it’s in another part of the world.
On if collegiate teams going on tour elevates the play of collegiate rugby in general…
Oh yeah, and I think it would have an even larger effect on the rugby environment in the United States because to me, I see it as, if you have the right players going to the right countries, getting the right experience and coming back, they’re only going to motivate their friends, younger siblings, and anyone else to try and recreate what they did and take it a little bit further, do a little bit better.
What part of the trip are you looking forward to the most-the sightseeing, rugby instruction, team bonding, etc.?
Team bonding is a big one because what you do on tour, especially when it’s with some of your best teammates who you’ve been playing with, it really can give you a new sense of bonding with them as you travel and as you get to play against a new opponent, a fresh face. I think I’m most looking forward to just being able to practice, play, and meet the opposite numbers because I’ve been to France, I’ve been to New Zealand, and I’ve been able to travel to the East Coast on rugby tours and one of my favorite moments is to be able to bring together the guys I just played with with some some guys that I just played against and to break down the barriers that we have, so to speak. To just kind of get to know one another.
It was announced that the D1A Championship will be held at Saint Mary’s Stadium for the second consecutive year. Last year, of course, was exciting because you guys were able to play for the chip in front of your home fans but of course it was not the ending you wanted. Does that loss combined with another potential opportunity to play for the championship at home again add fuel to the fire or are you guys already as motivated as can be to win the national championship anyway?
Oh yeah, I certainly remember that. I’ll put it this way. We know when the final is coming up, it’s a dream that we can have another opportunity to play in front of our fans as they provide a great, ultra-supportive atmosphere for us, and you know if you didn’t think that it was already one of our goals, I think you’re far from the mark. Yeah, we’ve got our goals.
The seniors and fifth year players have been through alot together, winning back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015 only to lose against Life last year at home in the final. Can you describe what the brotherhood on this team is like, especially among the older players?
We’ve got an experienced leadership group, we’ve got a pretty experienced high potential group, and I’m usually not one for trickle-down economics but I think that in the realm of rugby, I think it’s really built around the guys that are going to go out there and do to everything they can. Most of the younger guys and the newer players have got to understand what the culture is like first. I think what the team this year has really done well is set the right standard and the right example in the beginning of the year, from the get go. I think that’s really aided the growth of our younger players and because of that, they’ve really added to the group’s cohesion. I think the brotherhood that this Saint Mary’s team holds is pretty real right now. It’s some respect that I haven’t seen in awhile.
On Payton Telea’s emergence as the starting loose-head prop despite being a freshman...
Well, I’ll tell you what, Payton is a guy who has a lot of talent. He’s got a whole world of talent. Vili Helu was probably the same sort of way a couple of years ago, Aaron Mathews was the same way last year, and Mike McCarthy as a freshman was the same way as well. World of talent, these guys, and I think they might even be the first to tell you that in practice, when they’re not really getting something, they’ll take a step back, they’ll watch, they’ll learn, and with short notice they’ll be able to pick it back up, so by the time we start playing games, they know their role and are able to fill and fine-tune their job. It certainly does a guy justice when a player can sit back, kind of see how things are going, and when his opportunity is called, take it in his own direction and in the way he sees most fit. For a guy like Payton, I think he’s grabbed the reigns on it and will take this game as far as he wishes. So far learning more every week, he backs himself to run with some real pace and purpose; and we’re going to back him up for it, it’s awesome.
I have heard that Scott Ohlendorf (Director of Recreation Programs) loves the classic rock you play when you work at the front desk in the rec center in the mornings. What is on your pre-game playlist? Any favorite bands or singers?
Well, if I’m driving my own car to the match, I’ve got some old rock and roll CDs that my dad gave me, so I’m usually jamming out to the same thing that I used to play here for Scottie-boy. I also like to get a ride with some of my buddies and enjoy listening to the music they have. I don’t think I have a specific playlist, per se, but there’s certainly some things that you feel like you need to hear, call for it, and somebody will facilitate it, that’s all it really takes. Maybe it’s not rock but something has got to get your heartrate up and if it’s not going to be a game and some good music, I don’t know what will. I listen to a lot of AC/DC before a game. That’s the number one I can think of when it comes to classic rock, I’ve got a couple of other CDs. But it’s not all just throw your head into the wall, headbanging, you know. I do listen to a bit of The Allman Brothers, a little bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a little bit of Eric Clapton. I like music with a little bit of soul behind it and that catalyzes me to do what I feel is in my soul. That’s the way I’ll describe it.
Anything else you wish to say/get off your mind/any message for all of the fans and supporters?
To the friends and family, I love you.
To the folks that show up to our games, I appreciate you.
And to my teammates, I think that we’ve got something great going.
And you know what? We’ve had a great opportunity to hold our destiny in our own hands so far. It’s going to be a great couple of weeks and I think we’re just looking forward to the next phase of the season.