Place of Birth: Dorchester
Date of Birth: 23/09/1998
Previous Clubs: Dorchester, UWIC
Representative Honours: none
Best rugby memory: Playing for Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park in a Premiership Cup win against Worcester Warriors, Beating Leeds Tykes away on National League One debut
Sporting hero: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson
Sam Prior (first published January 2022)
In his regular column meeting the players, Richard Kitzinger meets up with giant number 8, Sam ‘Turbo’ Prior.
Is this getting repetitive? Every time I write my programme notes for a Titans home game, I find myself gushing about how much I’ve enjoyed meeting the player in question. It must be a reflection of the ethos of Taunton RFC and the squad built by Tony Yapp that the various, very different, characters are all engaging and hugely likeable.
This time it was Sam Prior. Turbo. The big unit at number 8 for whom there’s always a collective intake of breath in the crowd when he’s on the ball in anticipation of what might happen. He arrived all smiles and joviality. I wouldn’t want to be up against him on the rugby pitch, mind you. His hands are enormous. He is enormous. It transpires that he played a season in Lichfield where he was dubbed “Shadow”. Not for stealth reasons though. The scrum half’s rationale in giving him the nickname was that he knew whenever Sam was around simply because the sun was blocked out.
The story of how he came about his Titans moniker ‘Turbo’ is best left to Sam himself. “A few years ago I scored a try from 70 metres out – I have it on video before anyone questions the distance – and someone called me ‘Turbopig’. Fortunately, the pig bit has dropped off over time, so I’m left with Turbo which I quite like.”
Sam’s form has been stellar since the return to rugby – all the more impressive given his recent history. He was diagnosed with pheochromocytoma, a rare tumour of the adrenal glands which forced his body to produce more and more adrenaline, pushing his blood pressure up to scary numbers. It was touch-and-go, to the extent that his parents were told by doctors that they’d done all they could. He was in intensive care on life support for two weeks, put into a coma for a few days and then, in his own words, “randomly woke up one day, feeling better.”
He wasn’t out of the woods. He then had to take it easy for many months, waiting for medication to bring down his heart rate before an operation to remove the tumour. It was nothing short of sensational when he was able to line up once more in Titans colours during the 2019/20 promotion season. The thought of getting back on the field with his team-mates spurred Sam on in his recovery. He admitted, “It would have been pretty upsetting not to have been able to play so I was just pleased to have got back in time for four games before Covid intervened.”
“You see some bizarre shapes and sizes on rugby fields but all of a sudden they do something electric.”
There have been comparisons of Sam with former Exeter and England Number 8, Thomas Waldrom. Both share the distinction of being big impact back row forwards with, dare one say it, an unlikely build for an athlete. “I’ve had games,” Sam said, “where I’ve come off the bench and even before the first scrum a prop has started sledging me. When they see me pack down at 8, their eyes show the confusion.”
Sam’s route to playing rugby is unconventional. His dad took him to play touch rugby as a youngster, the memories accompanied by recollections of cones of chips and games of pool enjoyed afterwards. However, he then played football and basketball throughout his childhood and teens. It wasn’t until he was at university (UWIC) that the strength and conditioning coach at the gym suggested he give rugby another go. “I was 19 and in Wales; I thought ‘Why not?’”
Rugby isn’t an easy game to learn. To have done so in adulthood and still progress to this level, is no mean feat. After university, he came to the Titans for trial in 2010 but didn’t make the cut. The following year, Chris Bentley saw something in him and he’s made the trip from his Dorchester home to Taunton ever since. That first season was blighted by a pectoral muscle injury but he broke through in 2012 when Tony Yapp asked him to move from lock to Number 8 and it’s been his domain ever since.
“I enjoy the freedom at 8,” Sam explained. “The main aim is to make yards and carry ball which is what I enjoy the most.” Chris Brown, coach of the Titans pack, underlined Sam’s importance to the team, “He’s a founder member of the culture we have at Taunton. He works hard and has an energy which drives others. He’s central to our plans, has an unplayable capability on the pitch and an attitude off it which generates team direction.”
Sam is the current forward with the most Titans caps, approaching the 150 mark, so is well placed to comment on the step up to English rugby’s third tier. “Every week has the intensity of playing a top-of-the-table National 2 team. We had a poor game away at Sale and all of a sudden they put 50 points on us.” Such results show there’s no room to take opponents lightly but “the boys realised with the opening day win at Leeds that we do belong at this level.”
“Leeds away was one of the best days of my life. Then we won again the next week at Darlington and knew we were here for a reason.”
“My try when we beat Rams was a special one for me. I’d actually messed up and picked up off the back of a scrum when I shouldn’t have.” Spectators may remember Jack Walsh throwing his hands in the air in frustration that the called move didn’t happen, so it was just as well that Sam scored. “When I made it, it was like ‘Phew’! There’s a good picture of that moment with my back row mates Toots and Wrighty jumping on my back.”
Away from rugby, Sam’s on a work sabbatical, taking stock of things after his illness and following ten years as a business manager selling orthopaedic implants. “It’s true,” he admitted, “life really is too short.” He’s spent his time reading (mostly self-growth books) and going to the gym. His illness made him think about how he’d been living and he resolved to push himself more.
“Sam’s taken full advantage of the pandemic to increase his conditioning levels, allowing him to explore his full potential. Credit to him. It’s a tough road, self-driven, and has involved huge sacrifices to get there.” Chris Brown, Titans Forwards Coach
Prior to this season, Sam challenged himself to do couch to 5k. “No-one would ever describe me as a fit man or as an endurance athlete but I came into this season fitter than ever before. At times I asked myself ‘Why work on running when it’s not my forte?’ but being fitter has empowered my strengths.” Being in such good condition is paying dividends on the field and may just help Sam on his quest to reach 200 Titans appearances. And after that? “When I do stop playing, I’d like to put something back in – maybe on the club committee. I like it here.”
Richard Kitzinger is writing in our match day programmes as well as on the Taunton RFC website. Richard is a Will Writer and all club members are entitled to a 25% discount on Lasting Powers of Attorney with him. Call him on 07504 991893.
By Prior Arrangement (first published March 2022)
By Richard Kitzinger
“Who’s that?” the bloke sitting behind me asked his mate as the Exeter Chiefs team to face was announced on the big screens at Sandy Park.
The number 8 was the only one of the starting line-up represented by a silhouette rather than a photo.
“Sam Prior,” mused the mate, “No idea. Probably one of the Academy lads.”
That’s no teenage Academy lad. That’s our Sam Prior. Turbo.
With the Taunton Titans for over a decade, Sam continues to break new ground. This is the guy who was on life-support, who was in a coma, who had a tumour removed from his adrenal glands and still had the willpower to make it back onto the rugby field before Covid closed down the 2019/20 season. The same player who travels to Taunton from Dorchester three times each week to the rugby club he loves and who has been making the earth shudder on grounds from Plymouth to Darlington in Titans colours this season.
“Strange that Santiago Grondona, who plays number 8 for Argentina, is wearing 6 instead of this guy,” came another observation from a row back.
As I looked at the silhouette, I felt pride and excitement for Turbo making his Exeter Chiefs debut at the age of 33. He was joined in the squad for the Premiership Cup game by some familiar faces. Jack Walsh ran the game from fly-half and Sam Leworthy also made his Exeter debut off the bench. Cory Teague who, like Walsh and Chiefs captain Stu Townsend, had trod the well-worn loan path from Sandy Park to Hyde Park, lined up in the second row. Sam Prior’s was a loan move in the opposite direction, the recent Champions of Europe drafting him in from their National League One neighbours.
During the warm-up I couldn’t help but watch Turbo. He did his runs, he did his stretches but, when it came to line-out practice, he wasn’t required to lift, nor to jump. When the Chiefs ran out of the tunnel, he was last man onto the field.
Any concerns that he would be marginalised were short-lived. Roared on by a crowd in excess of 10,000, Turbo was used three times in the first few minutes to hit the ball up. With barely ten minutes on the clock, referee Adam Leal awarded a penalty to Exeter when Prior’s strong jackal was frustrated by a Worcester player not releasing. Fourteen Chiefs ran over to slap Sam on the back. This was no duck out of water. This was a player revelling in his day in the sun.
For 53 minutes of Chief’s Premiership Cup victory until he was replaced, Sam Prior mixed it with professional rugby players and looked every bit the part. Who knows whether Turbo himself heard it, but when the ball was passed to him in the centres or when he fielded a clearance kick and ran it back into the oncoming Worcester Warriors, there was a surge in crowd volume?
Once dubbed ‘Shadow’ by a team-mate who accused him of blocking out the sun, Sam Prior may have been represented on the screen by a silhouette but there was rock-solid substance to the impact he had on his Exeter Chiefs debut.
Sam Prior (first published September 2023)
As the curtain comes up on a new National League One season, Richard Kitzinger meets up with long-serving Taunton favourite, Sam ‘Turbo’ Prior.
Sam Prior is looking forward to the new season and, at the age of 34, he has decided that it is to be his last year of Taunton Titans rugby. The big impact number 8 is just nineteen games short of 200-caps for Titans and holds out hope of reaching the milestone. “In a normal season,” he says, “Nineteen games would be very achievable but at some stage this year I’m going to need to have an operation. I’ve still got a couple of centimetres of tumour remaining that were found during a routine check.”
Before the pandemic, Sam underwent surgery for pheochromocytoma, a rare tumour of the adrenal glands which forced his body to produce more and more adrenaline. He almost died. That he recovered is remarkable. That he managed to get back onto a rugby field and to play at this level is nothing short of incredible. He’s very phlegmatic about it. He’d be sad to finish his playing days just short of being a double centurion but it is what it is.
There’s no doubting that Sam is capable of continuing for this season. Anyone who saw him last term and in the pre-season games will vouch that he has lost none of his powerful running ability. The Dorchester native recalls hearing footballer Gary Neville’s assessment that he knew it was time to quit playing when everyone ran past him in a match, saying, “That hasn’t happened to me. I think I’m still up to standard and I still get the excitement about running onto the field.”
Reflecting on the narrow escape from relegation last season, Sam says, “We always knew that if we got the performances right then the results would come. Strange as it might sound to outsiders, as a playing group we weren’t thinking about relegation.”
“Not many people would have bet on us to beat Rosslyn Park but that was the game that changed it for us. It wasn’t a game you’d expect to be so defining for us. It’s tough to go up there on their 4G pitch but we had a touch of quality come in with the Bath boys [on loan] who were brilliant and it helps when you’ve got someone a bit special like Mani [Feyi-Waboso, who was on loan from Exeter].”
On how it felt to actually survive the relegation fight he says it was probably, “Just relief”. It was, he says, a tough season and one that the squad was happy came to an end. “Particularly being on the right side of the relegation line. The form we – and Esher for that matter – were in, if the season had gone on another five or six weeks it would have been another team altogether who went down.”
“However negative the relegation battle felt at the time, as a group surviving it will only make us stronger and tighter.”
Turning thoughts to the new campaign, Turbo says, “Pre-season is always an odd thing. The off-season that you’ve looked forward to finishes really quickly and then nine or ten weeks of pre-season ahead of you feels like a massive block. All of a sudden then we’re looking at game one and the league campaign.”
This year the training included a session with the Strength and Conditioning team at Sandy Park in Exeter where the first task was a bear crawl across the pitch and back. “If you’ve ever done a bear crawl,” says Sam, “It’s hard. That set the tone for the session. We knew we were in for a tough couple of hours after that.”
He speaks of work done on movement, handling skills and running as well as a lot of strength and conditioning with Titans’ Lyndon Lane. The forwards have put some hours into set-piece work so there’s every reason to expect them to hit the ground running today against Blackheath.
A further reason to anticipate great things is the injection of some new blood into the squad. Sam cites five or six new players who are likely to make a serious contribution over the coming months. One is already standing out to him. “It’s hard not to talk about Elvis [Taione] when you mention the new signings. He’s already contributing the odd sentence here or there that makes such good sense from a coaching point of view. It can be subtle, technical points but it helps so much. He’s done it all in his career.”
“We’ve got the potential to be a top six side. We need to be competitive in every game and it has to be our goal to finish in the top half.”
“On our day we have the confidence that we can beat anyone,” says Sam, although he recognises that in National League One there is no room for taking the foot off the pedal because any opponent is capable of winning against anyone.
Having moved to Taunton – Sam and his partner Lydia are in the process of buying a house in the town – he is keen to remain involved with the club at some level or in some capacity, which could mean playing some games with the Warriors beyond the end of this season. “I really like the town. Lydia’s from Taunton and is chair of Galmington Netball Club so we spend all weekend watching one another play.”
We can’t talk rugby with Turbo though without mentioning his moment of glory, running out against Worcester Warriors in a Premiership Cup game for Exeter Chiefs. “It was an incredible week,” he says of his short-term loan from Hyde Park to Sandy Park. “There was a lot of pressure coming out of the tunnel to play the game and the crowd noise was a touch louder than at Veritas Park but the guys were really welcoming and made me feel right at home.”
“They have this really complicated coffee machine. I didn’t know how to use it. But there I was having breakfast next to Jonny Hill, just back from a British Lions tour, who just says ‘All right mate? Do you want a coffee’ and he makes me a coffee with a little love heart on it.”
After a week of training, he hoped that he gave a good account of himself. I was in the stands that day and can personally vouch that he did not look out of place – to the extent that people sitting around me were wondering whether the much-loved Thomas Waldrom was back. What does Sam remember of the victory? “The speed and the fitness is another level. I remember looking up at the clock, hoping we were nearing half-time but it had just ticked past fifteen minutes gone. It was probably the best day of my life so far.”
“I felt like a competition winner at times out there in a Chiefs shirt.”
“It was one of those days that I’ll never forget. I’ve still got the shirt – it’s not framed yet but that’s the plan.” For now though, the focus is very much on getting the new season, his last as a Titan, off to a flying start.
Taunton resident and rugby lover, Richard Kitzinger writes content for Taunton RFC’s club website and match-day programmes. His day job is writing Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney - he can be found at www.westcountrywills.co.uk or reached on 07504 991893.