We spoke to Lydia Thompson as she prepares to make her return for England after her disappointing World Cup experience.
It was meant to be third time lucky for Lydia Thompson.
At the 2014 World Cup, which England won, she was injured in the pool stages and missed the final.
In 2017, she scored a wonder try in the final, but England lost.
It was all set up for her in 2022 – England back in a World Cup final and red-hot favourites – Thompson starting on the wing and her team cruising to an early lead - then it went horribly wrong.
In the 17th minute, Thompson badly misjudged her contact on fellow wing Portia Woodman, with a head on collision that meant an instant red card.
Since then, she has largely avoided the spotlight, initially deciding not to play rugby again, before brilliant support from Jo Yapp and her team at Worcester supported her into making a return, eventually helping her back into the England camp for this Six Nations – all the while with her club having to fight for their existence with so much turbulence and uncertainty around its future.
We spoke to Thompson this week, where she had just one aim – to thank people for their kindness.
These are her own words about her devastating World Cup experience and what happened next.
"When it happened, I felt numb.
In that moment, after the red card went up - just totally numb.
Initially I was just worried about Portia because what had happened - the collision of heads - felt quite horrific.
My body then went into some sort of protective shut down which I realised afterwards. I watched the game in the dugout, but I just can’t even connect with the person who was watching, because it wasn’t me at all.
When the final whistle went, I really did feel broken, and I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to apologise to my teammates and to Portia.
It was a sense of relief to see her back on the field at the end of the game, but I felt devastated to have taken the full 80 minutes away from her too. Seeing that she is back playing now and is as awesome as ever, well that is really reassuring and important for me because of course I never step on the field to hurt someone.
When it was over and it sunk in that we’d lost, I felt like it was 100% my fault and I still get those thoughts, I wanted to apologise again and again.
People were incredibly kind to me after the game when maybe I was expecting blame and I just couldn’t stop crying or take it in. I found my family in the end and just sobbed.
People say – give it time, but you don’t believe them when you’re in a bad place. I know this sounds stupid, but for a while after the final, I couldn’t even imagine laughing again – that is how I felt, the idea of even having a normal conversation just felt impossible.
I came back and just decided to withdraw a bit and simplify my life. I came off social media – though I wasn’t very good at it anyway - and for a while I went back working for my family’s manufacturing business just because I didn’t want to be at home. Waking up and having a straightforward routine really helped – I went to work, had a good lunch, sat in an office, did my tasks and that was huge.
I started to think, well I am going to have to live with all these thoughts, so I need to start engaging a bit more with people. My family were amazing and then Worcester stepped in.
There had been so much going on with Worcester around the future of the club, the finances and if we’d even exist as a team. I was a bit more removed initially because we were away with England but when you think of Jo Yapp and everyone there losing their jobs – it was just an absolute rollercoaster. Jo has talked opened about the impact – not just her losing her job but her husband losing his job too.
Emotionally it’s a huge toll, but to have the resilience to not accept that – it’s a reminder that there is something really special about this club.
Our women’s programme has just an awesome group of people – led by Jo, who refused to accept things and, in the end, to come away with 10 years’ security and financial backing, it is a testament to all that hard work. I feel honoured to be part of the team and get to run out in a Worcester shirt and I get to do that because people like Jo Yapp made that possible.
With all that going on, she still made time for me. I met with her after I got back. I couldn’t even go to the club; I couldn’t be in a rugby environment at all. I met her at a David Lloyd, and I was pretty sure I was going to be saying, Jo thank you for coaching me, I will come and watch but I am not putting my boots on again and that’s it.
She just listened and she was so kind, and she shared some vulnerability with me too. She had been there and done it in her own journey in the game. She didn’t judge me; she was just so lovely.
I had to face doing the disciplinary hearing – I had never done one before, so from a practical point of view she helped me through that process and then every week we just took it from there.
She made so much time for me, which given what she had going on is just incredible. She guided me through that, my tackle course, checking in with me – that was a huge part of my return. We have some amazing people at Worcester. We’ve got a great strength and conditioning trainer too - Josie, I sat down with her I said I was unmotivated and had no confidence and I can’t see myself playing rugby again, but I had better keep conditioned for this course I have to do.
She listened to me and wrote such a nice, thoughtful session. It had small wins, it wouldn’t break me but built me up slowly. Such kindness.
After my ban was up, there was a game I could consider playing – it was DMP away. It’s a hard trip anyway and the forecast wasn’t great after Christmas, but it went in the diary as a maybe.
I cannot even explain how nervous I was for that game. I was absolutely shaking - physically shaking with nerves. The coach journey was so long, and, in the warmup, I was having second thoughts.
My amazingly supportive husband Tom had driven all the way up to watch me for 20 minutes and to be honest I can’t even remember the game.
My aims were very simple – get on the pitch, be there for my teammates and, of course, chop tackle…
The sense of relief after 20 minutes was just huge. It was an important part of my journey and if I hadn’t done it, I don’t know if I’d have really reengaged with rugby, so I am glad that Jo and Worcester made that happen for me.
I am really proud to be a one club player and I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else.
I think it’s great that people go to clubs that suit them at whatever time and it makes the league exciting, and it helps you grow as a player, but I was lucky to go to a sevens environment for a while, and I think a lot of my growth came out of there and playing alongside different players and coaches.
I have made friends for life here and I am so proud to be a Worcester player.
Maybe that makes me boring – but you look up sometimes during a game and see people like Donna Kennedy supporting us in the crowd– a former player, coach, legend of the game, a brilliant person and part of Worcester, what an honour.
Being back in the England camp at the moment is quite surreal – you think your time is up and there are so many good payers and so much strength in depth that I am not taking it for granted. I am not putting pressure on myself this year– I am just simplifying things. I know that I might not even play, but I am proud to be named and put myself back in the mix.
I think this could be a hugely exciting Six Nations. When you think about the fact that all the teams now are professional – it’s just incredible. Certainly, when I started it was never a job prospect! I couldn’t imagine sitting down with a career advisor and writing that down. The fact that almost everyone this year can call it a job – wow it’s just phenomenal.
Facing into the next few weeks with England, I feel lucky to be able to sit down and talk about everything now. It didn’t feel possible a few months ago and I hope people get the sense of my gratitude, which is why I wanted to do this.
As an occupational therapist I had been doing some work with a clinical phycologist even before the World Cup because I was trying to improve my own skills. So, I had been studying acceptance and commitment therapy and through that I realised how important it is as an athlete to be able to find a way to voice all of this, eventually.
For me it feels important that whatever you’re going through in life that you find a way to put language to how you’re feeling.
After the final, I kept thinking for example that everyone was going to tell me how horrible I was because that is how I was feeling and that was all I could see. I can see that a bit more clearly now and realise it was just part of the process of coming to terms with this experience.
I don’t want people to read this and think this is all just a ‘poor me’ thing when really, it’s just a journey of coming through a mistake and how you get there in the end. If anyone is going through it I would just encourage them to get out and talk to people, don’t hide, don’t withdraw – people are very kind.
So thank you again to everyone who reached out.
I feel so guilty that I have so many messages that I still want to reply to, but they really did mean so much to me. One of the most interesting things is how people, whether they’ve written to me or just bumped into me on the street, have shared their own stories of their own mistakes and their own vulnerabilities with me. That connection has been amazing.
Above anything you realise that of course we’re human, we make mistakes, we keep going, we learn from it, and it will get better. You wish you could learn that whole life lesson by reading someone else’s experience in a book, but life’s just not like that and that’s ok."
Lydia Thompson was speaking to Ali Donnelly