It was a rather abrupt end to what had been a very successful season for Taunton Titans and a highlight in the career of full-back Gary Kingdom following the club’s promotion to National One. (Photo Credit: Clayton Jane Photography)

In his third blog entry, the Titans man talks us through his playing days with Exeter Chiefs…

Thank you again for returning!

We left it last time in 2002 when I had just signed my first contract to play rugby. I stayed at Bath for the first half of the season, where it had been an irregular start with the U21’s as we did not have many fixtures and there had been chatter that the future of the age group looked uncertain.

In early February 2003 during a Tuesday night training session, I was called into the office… “We have had a call from Exeter Chiefs and they have asked if you would like to go on loan with them for the remainder of the season as injury cover?” I was slightly naive at the time and was not 100% sure what level they played at and if I could cope with them in my first exposure of senior rugby at a national level. I asked the coach at Bath his thoughts and decided it would be an opportunity too good to turn down.

Thursday afternoon came along and I was getting a lift from one of the Chiefs player to training for the evening. It was a fairly surreal experience, chatting away for the 2hr journey with my new team mate about Uni life followed by a meeting to sign for the Chiefs until the end of the season.

It transpired they had been keeping an eye on me since my school days and had been impressed during the County games I had played in, the biggest advocate being the county coach who was also coaching with Exeter at that time. My most vivid recollection was walking across the main County Ground pitch to the training field and thinking “this is more like a swamp!” Maybe not the greatest first impression but it soon become home and would soon hold some fantastic memories for me.

Training finished and I was told I would be on the bench on Saturday in the home game against Orrell. The actual game day was a bit of a blur.

I came off the bench for around four minutes, made a break, received a potential try scoring pass from the resulting play but was tackled and held up on the line. Not a bad start I thought and maintained my bench spot for the following week away at Otley, during which I would fare much better. I came off the bench in the first half and given one clear objective, do not let my opposite number get passed me!

To be honest I was slightly nervous and having seen my opposite winger already run over a couple guys, decided I only really had one option, get off the line hard and give him no room. So I did and was incredibly fortunate to see the fly-half attempting to get the ball wide allowing me to intercept the intended long pass and run a try in from 40m. It was a great feeling to get my first try in only my second appearance off the bench, but more importantly the team were playing very well and it resulted in my first start the following week… away to Worcester!

It did not take me long to realise that the game with Worcester was a big grudge match for the club, the intensity at training raised up a few notches but also, lucky for me, it was a local game to my home in Cheltenham.

We managed to win a close game and to my surprise afterwards, I found out it had been a cup semi-final. We were through to the final at Twickenham. Not a bad result for my first start at all!4

The final itself would prove to be a disappointing result for the club and not the only defeat I would play in for the club at the home of rugby. The remainder of the league season was a great success for the club however, going unbeaten for the remaining games and on a personal note, I started every game including a try scoring appearance against top of the table Rotherham.

After saying farewell to the guys post season, it wasn’t long before I received a call from the Bath coach to inform me that the U21s was to be disbanded but Exeter had made an approach for me to sign with them. After a brief discussion with Exeter, I accepted their offer and signed with Exeter for what would be a six year stint with the club.

My first full season with the Chiefs was hampered by injury. I think the continual travel back and forth from Cheltenham to Exeter had an impact on my lower back forcing me to miss large parts of the season.

One game I was involved in that I remember vividly was on the 22 November 2003. I was up early to get a good spot at the local pub in Cheltenham, to watch England play Australia in the World Cup final. It was a tough game to watch, with other students drinking around me and knowing I needed to be ready for my game very quickly after the 80 minutes were up… then extra time!… I needed to leave to meet the bus!

I had a lift out to the motorway junction where I stood waiting for around 20 minutes, no idea how the final was playing out. Then the bus pulled in, the doors opened and out spilled an eruption of noise and cheering. The final whistle had gone and England had won. The game was also eventful and due to a late injury, I played at fullback (I had been mainly used as a winger) and was given the kicking duties for the first time. It was a really tough game that didn’t go our way and I remember really struggling to fully focus with all the ruckus that had been going on.

That season did, however, end on a real high. I was selected for Devon to play in the County Championship and with a very strong team, we made it to the final. Again, I was selected at full-back and was given the kicking duties but this time the result went in our favour resulting in my first victory and first try at Twickenham.

To this day it is a real highlight in my career and again it ticked off some more personal goals.

I went on to play in a further two County Championship finals with Devon, winning one and losing what would prove to be my last. I was also lucky enough to experience two other trips to HQ with the Chiefs, unfortunately they both ended in defeat. I managed to again pick up a try in the first against the Cornish Pirates in 2007 and the second was a tough encounter with Northampton Saints in 2008. With everything I achieved at Exeter, a victory at Twickenham really would have capped off what was a great time in my life.

I remained a Chiefs player for five more seasons, moving down to Exeter (where I still live today) in 2005. There were some incredible highs for me with the club, including playing and scoring in the last ever game at the County Ground, making the transition to becoming a full-time rugby player and scoring some great tries –  the best (in my opinion) against the Cornish Pirates at Sandy Park to win the game late on.

I managed to beat my opposite number on the outside, cut back in and beat the full-back with a chip and gather over the line. My proudest achievement, however, has to be reaching 100 league games and forever having my name on the centurion board at Sandy Park.

The final season of my contract with Exeter was mainly spent out on loan with the Cornish All Blacks, it was good fun and on reflection, I am glad I had the opportunity to play some rugby as a lot of others within the Chiefs squad at that time were not so fortunate.

As my contract drew to a close, it became apparent that it would not be renewed and as a result I signed for Plymouth Albion for a season long semi-professional contract.

I really enjoyed my time at Plymouth, but something was not quite right for me at the time and I wasn’t getting the game time that I felt I should be getting. I was still keen to stay with the club but it seems they had different ideas… so I was left at a cross roads in my life and some big decisions needed to be made regarding my future.

What followed was a frantic job hunt and once again, a couple of great opportunities that would shape where I am today. So tune in next time as I move to Taunton and continue working within rugby….