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Mike Tindall is telling me about the time, early on in his career, that he played a game of rugby with a set of broken ribs. “When I started in 1997,” he says, “I was getting paid £10,000 a year. I was straight out of school and I would have done anything to get on that pitch because there might be a match bonus. Another time I played with a separated AC [a dislocated shoulder]. Do you want me to tell you the worst thing about those broken ribs? No, I shouldn’t...” Yes, please!
The 42-year-old doesn’t need much encouragement. “My coach at the time, to see if my ribs were OK, he said ‘Can you stretch up your arms?’” – he mimes raising his arms to the ceiling – “and then he punched me in the ribs. And fortunately he missed where they were broken. Thank God he didn’t hit me an inch lower! I should stress that I don’t think that’s a good thing; it’s just how it was at the time. You’d do anything to play.”
The game has changed a huge amount, even since he retired in 2011 with 75 caps and one World Cup to his name. In the past year, several former players have brought a negligence case against the Rugby Football Union, saying that more should have been done to help prevent their traumatic brain injuries, early onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Tindall believes that the game is now: “As safe as you’re going to get it. My stance on this is that I love the game. I don’t want the game to change. I accept it is what it is: an avoidance game with unfortunate high speed collisions. But the more they mess around with it” – a new rule deems contact to the head a red card offence – “it doesn’t become the game I want it to be. What we’ve celebrated about rugby for so long is the ability for any shape or size to play and you find your way within that. I would prefer [the RFU] to spend the time providing for the people who unfortunately have suffered because of it... We need to do more research into the different types of blows, and the ability to monitor that during games.”
He thinks he needs to go and get checked out by doctors himself. “I’ve said for ages that I’m going to, because it’s better to know than not to know. And yet the days just tick over and I haven’t done it yet.” To be fair, he does have a 12-week-old baby to deal with (Lucas arrived in March), as well as his daughters Lena, three, and Mia, seven (“I mean, it’s like running a logistics company, isn’t it?” he laughs of fatherhood). But he will get tested soon. “It’s taking responsibility. And ultimately it helps the sports when ex-pros get tested. When I started, rugby union had only just become a professional sport. We were sort of guinea pigs. Everyone was figuring out why people got injured. Nobody was even thinking about head knocks. The game has changed so much in such a short space of time.”
Sport, generally, is a very different beast to when he started, far more political and serious. We talk a bit about the England football team taking the knee in Euro 2020 games. Would he support the Lions if, next weekend, they decided to take the knee? “I support the fight against racism for sure. Would I necessarily take the knee? Realistically I don’t generally buy into the actual organisation of Black Lives Matter. If you read the website and go through it all…” He pauses for a moment. “I just don’t like the organisation. So I would respect [the stance against] racism in my own way.” He tells me about a conversation he had with his daughter, Mia, the other day, while watching Serena Williams play in the French Open. “She said ‘Who’s winning?’ and I told her Serena was. She said: ‘Is she the one in the green dress or the white dress?’ I was like, that’s amazing. She doesn’t see colour. I would love racism not to exist.”
He is pretty straightforward, too, about social media. He’s glad that he finished playing before it really became a thing. “All I could think about when I finished a game was what had gone wrong. The last thing you need to read is everyone else picking you up on all your flaws, too,” he says. But he is also glad that he couldn’t post on it as a teenager, and has a lot of sympathy for the cricketer Ollie Robinson, who was suspended this month for tweets he wrote many moons ago and for which he has since apologised.
“Look, you can’t condone what people have said but people can change, and it’s naive to think they can’t. I would have said some stupid things when I was 18, without a shadow of a doubt.” He did, after all, get fined £25,000 by the RFU for a “dwarf-throwing” night out during the 2011 World Cup, as you do.
But a lot has changed for Tindall in the last 10 years. Next month marks a decade since he married Zara Phillips, the daughter of the Princess Royal, and in that time there have been three children, one Olympic medal (for Zara) and all the other in-law drama that I suppose must be somewhat intensified when they happen to be the Royal family. Not that Tindall has anything but nice things to say about them.
“I can only say how kind they’ve been to me, and how welcoming they’ve been to me since joining the family. And how they’ve made my family welcome. I’ve always felt part of it and I think that’s down to what an amazing woman the Queen is. They’re a fantastic family. How many families say that they will get together as a whole family six to eight times a year? It just doesn’t happen for me. I would like it to happen more, and this is where I have to perhaps learn a bit more from the wife, but it’s very rare. They’re very close and it’s great to see.”
The Tindalls plan to go away to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. “Maybe Cornwall if we can’t go abroad.” His brother-in-law, Peter Phillips, made his first public appearance at Ascot since finalising his divorce from wife Autumn this week and I wonder what tips Tindall has for a happy marriage. “I don’t know!” he laughs. “A lot can change over 10 years. I think the fact that she’s always been my best friend has been the key. At the end of the day we can sit down and laugh at each other and have a good time. It’s been an amazing 10 years.”
He is close, too, to his own family who live in West Yorkshire. Covid has made it hard for him to see them as often as he would like, which is especially hard given that his father, Philip, has Parkinson’s disease, and his mother, Linda, suffers from asthma.
“My dad’s main symptom is that he just freezes and can’t move. Then it’s quite hard for a 73-year-old lady to try and drag him out of the chair and get him going again. They’re also stubborn in some ways. My dad still likes to feel like he’s got a purpose. But it’s frustrating because once I arrived and he was holding a huge power drill, trying to drill a hole through an electrical socket to put power in his shed. I don’t know how to connect the mains power, so I’m definitely not comfortable with him doing it, especially when he can hardly hold the drill.”
Another time, his dad insisted on painting the bedroom ceiling, despite the fact he can’t look up. “He used to be 5ft 10 but he’s now not even 5ft 6 because his spine has curved. He’s on the stepladder trying to do the ceiling. How is that helpful?” he laughs. “And funnily enough, they had to get someone in to redo it.”
The family cope with a lot of dark humour. It’s the rugby way (his dad used to play and was the one who got his son into the game). But the family has also been doing a lot of awareness work with the charity Cure Parkinson’s. Tindall is an ambassador and hosts regular fund-raising events for them – next Friday there’s a celebrity golf tournament (“it always gets a bit lively”), and then two days later he has to cycle 42km for the charity. In between, there’s the small matter of a trip to Edinburgh for the Lions game. He’s not sure he’s entirely up to such a busy schedule. “My miles per hour might not be that good,” he chuckles. But I remind him that given he once played a game with broken ribs, he can sure as hell do this.
Mike Tindall’s annual celebrity golf classic supported by ISPS Handa and Croft Communications takes place on Friday 25 June for cureparkinsons.org.uk
For more information on injuries and disabilities caused by sports, please go to matthampsonfoundation.org.uk