Never go back. That is the age-old advice for rugby players and footballers who have achieved success at a club and are tempted to return. But that is just what Matt Gilbert has done.
There is plenty of evidence to support the argument, but also a number exceptions to the rule. The early signs are that Mat Gilbert, whose groundbreaking career in rugby came full circle when he re-signed for Hartpury College last summer, falls very much into the latter category. To say Gilbert made it into the full-time ranks the hard way would be understating his journey. He was not a product of an academy system, and only made the breakthrough once he had completed a sports coaching and conditioning degree at Hartpury in 2008. He also stands out for being profoundly deaf.
According to a report in The Telegraph three years ago, Gilbert's impairment places him in a minority of one when it comes to professional sportsmen. In the world of top-flight rugby, where tactical calls and rehearsed moves need to be sharp, hearing would appear to be a prerequisite. Not so, according to Gilbert, a man who has never asked to be treated differently by his team-mates, coaches or schoolteachers since diagnosis at the age of five.
Unable to hear without aids placed in each ear under his scrum cap, the 31-year-old back-rower can reel off a list of appearances alongside some household names at Scarlets, Bath Rugby and Worcester Warriors to illustrate his ability to comepte at the highest level. Whilst that sort of experience is proving crucial in Hartpury's push for promotion from National League 1 – the English game's third tier – Gilbert hopes it can also help others achieve sporting success outside the boundaries of the deaf society. “I played in the top-flight for five or six years and if I can inspire a few more people with hearing loss to do that, then brilliant,” said Gilbert, whose life away from the pitch also includes public speaking appointments with a range of businesses, schools and clubs.
“There are a couple of kids who I have known for a few years now and I keep in touch with them. They say they're playing contact rugby and really enjoying it and thank me for letting them know they could wear a hearing aid and still play. And it's not just the children, it's the parents too. Every parent will have concerns about their child playing sport and that is heightened when the child has hearing loss, so it is good to be able to address those.
“I don't want to upset anyone by saying I am the only deaf professional sportsman in the country because some people aren't so open about it – so we don't know for sure. People have asked me whether I think I could have achieved more if I wasn't so open,” he added. “Look at Ben Cohen [2003 World Cup winner]. He is clinically deaf – never wore hearing aids, never felt comfortable about it, never told anyone. If we had known about that, would he have played for England or so many times for Northampton? It is a difficult question and unless you ask the coaches you won't know. And they aren't ever going to say 'we can't pick him, he's deaf' because that opens up a can of worms.”
While there are many disadvantages, Gilbert – who attended mainstream school in the West Midlands and opted not to learn sign language – admits he used to “try it on” with referees before earning a reprimand from 2015 World Cup final referee Nigel Owens during a fixture in Wales. “The referee actually sin-binned me last weekend for kicking the ball away,” he laughs, recalling an incident in Hartpury's league success over Esher. “I heard the whistle but did it anyway – he just didn't give me the chance to say I didn't hear it!
“I get by through lip-reading. It comes from understanding the game and having the awareness around me. Rugby is very structured now, particularly at the top level, and you know what's going to happen for three or four phases so you can usually preempt what the call is going to be. You occasionally get it wrong, but you tend to know. There are a lot of comms, but it's not the end of the world if you don't hear it all.”
Gilbert's big break in the Premiership and Heineken Cup came when former Bath Director of Rugby, Gary Gold signed him from Llanelli in 2012. The South African coach was a big fan, but he was never in favour with his successor, Mike Ford, and moved to Worcester. A year after helping the Sixways outfit pip Bristol to promotion from the Championship, and having failed to become a regular starter under Dean Ryan, he found himself out of contract.
Hartpury, who were powering their way through the Gloucester leagues when he last played for them, came calling and provided the perfect solution. “If I'd had a good job offer I'd have quit [Worcester] in 2015,” he admitted. I haven't played for two years and, mentally it's a tough grind. In any profession, you've got to enjoy what you're doing, otherwise there is no point. I had offers from Championship clubs but they were too far away and I didn't want to move from my home in Bath if I could avoid it. Some of those clubs are also spreading their budgets so thin you might only be earning a £10,000 salary as a full-time professional. When you're 30, that isn't something you can live off.
“Hartpury came in and one of my former team-mates with England Deaf, Richard Jackson, asked whether would I be interested in working with him in a sales role at his sports analysis company. The two together meant it was enough, financially. A few boys I knew from the last time are on the staff at Hartpury, lecturing, and Mark Cornwell is head coach. He was starting out at Hartpury as he was finishing his career at Gloucester. It's a good standard and I have input into the development of young players and it will put me in good stead when it comes to moving into coaching, or whatever. I always had in the back of my mind that I would go back to Hartpury, maybe not as early as I have. I had an unbelievable time there for four years, so why wouldn't I want to go back?"
Gilbert even had the chance to pull on the Blue, Black and White of Bath again when the club faced a back-row injury crisis and he was called up for their second-string United team in September – and he remains convinced he could continue to play at the top if given the opportunity. With Hartpury recording bonus-point wins in each of their first ten matches, it doesn't look like it will be too long before he is back in the second tier, at least. The prospect of a local derby in 2017-18 with relegation-threatened Bristol is a particularly interesting one.
“There are 50,000 people playing the sport and 500 professionals – 0.1 per cent,” he added. “There is always a tinge of regret but I'd have thought you were having a laugh if you'd told me ten years ago, when I was at university and hadn't played at a higher than Gloucester Premier, that I would end up playing in Heineken Cup. It's all about making the right decisions. If I'd left Hartpury and gone back home to Kent to play for Tunbridge Wells and got a job then I'd probably still be there now. I'd have been reasonably happy, playing every week, but I wanted to see where I could go.”