Tommy Pouncey in Leeds Rhinos PDRL training

“I wouldn’t be world champion if I wasn’t disabled”

Leeds Rhinos Physical Disability Rugby League captain and England international Tommy Pouncey tells his story from MS diagnosis to world champion status.

“I was gonna be businessman of the year. I would have 12 kids and millions of pounds. Then I was reading about how not to p*** myself in public.”

Tommy Pouncey’s life took an unexpected turn when he went to university.

Captain of London Metropolitan University’s rugby team. Marketing student with a girlfriend and a restless uni life. 

At 27, the Bradford lad became one of the 7,000 people in the UK who are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) everyday.

MS is a long-lasting disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the protective covering of the nerve cells, affecting the brain and spinal cord.

Pouncey has a type called ‘Relapsing-Remitting’, where symptoms get worse before recovery. 

Pouncey in 2024 without his much-loved locks

“I was just getting some weird unexplained sensations throughout my body and some weird things were happening,” said Pouncey.

“From the chest down, I felt I had pins and needles. Then, the week after, my eyes went blurry for a week. And then I felt dizzy and I couldn’t walk properly.

“One of the issues for me is that after a certain amount of time, you can’t repair scars and scar tissue just builds up and that’s how you become disabled with MS.”

The 35-year-old suffers numbness in his right arm and severe fatigue.

“It’s great for punching people. But it’s a bit of a pain when trying to write your own name.”

Achieving a First-Class Honours degree in marketing at LMU remains Pouncey’s proudest life accomplishment. But the MS diagnosis certainly made things trickier for him.

Pouncey in action for Leeds Rhinos PDRL team (Photo: Annie Blackburn)

He explained: “MS is a big horrible thing, and when you’re confronted with it, you generally look at the worst possible outcome, which is using a wheelchair.

“It is losing all autonomy, but that generally happens after 30 years of having the disease, it doesn’t happen the week after. So everybody else’s fear around me made me really nervous about it.”

Pouncey says dealing with that diagnosis was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. 

“It felt like my own dreams had died within myself. The person that I wanted to be had died, all wasn’t possible anymore.”

Despite the hardship, he still had his passion for sport.

Pouncey has had a ball in hand for almost his whole life (Photo: Annie Blackburn)

After getting three red cards in three football games at under-six level, the door was opened to a life-altering change.

“My coach said to me ‘you’re great at taking people down’, so he jokingly suggested trying rugby instead.”

Pouncey played for Bradford Victoria Rangers and Milford before going on trial with Leeds Rhinos Under-18s.

He didn’t make the cut with Rhinos. Instead, he spent his primitive years playing for community clubs in Yorkshire.

Six months after his MS diagnosis in 2017, a different pathway opened itself up for his future in rugby.

“I was feeling a little bit down, scrolling through Twitter and I saw a post from Leeds Rugby Club saying that they were going to start a disabled rugby team and would anybody with disabilities be up for it.

“I wanted to make hay while the sun shines. I thought if this body isn’t gonna last, I want to burn it out first,” Pouncey continued, “I might as well do as much as I can, so that I can look back and say I gave it a go.” 

The Rhinos PDRL skipper is an inspirational figure at the Rhinos Foundation (Photo: Annie Blackburn)

His first impressions of Rhinos didn’t quite match his expectations.

“Originally I thought I was going to help out and teach people how to pass. I also wanted to learn about being disabled.

“Within about six months, it taught me that actually I was the one they were helping. They were helping me come to terms with being or becoming disabled.”

Pouncey went on to become captain of the Leeds Rhinos Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) team.

For him, it’s a huge honour.

“It means everything to me, the best part of this has been the lads that you meet. I call it the Viking long ship. There’s 20 lads sat in a boat and they’re rolling in one direction.

“Those lads aren’t the same as you, but they’ve got the same goal and they’re all heading to the same place. It’s like a brotherhood type thing.”

Tom Kaye, one of Pouncey’s Rhinos teammates said: “He leads by example, despite his condition.

“He’s been played a bad hand of cards but plays it tough. I enjoy playing with him. He inspires a lot of people.”

LEADER: Pouncey is now into his seventh year with Rhinos

Just after the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Rhinos PDRL skipper was called up to the England squad.

This was an “amazing feeling” for Pouncey but winning the World Cup in 2022 soon topped that.

“I couldn’t believe how happy I felt. I knew we were going to win because of how we trained, the players that we had. They didn’t stand a chance. It was whether or not we’d mess up.”

Becoming a PDRL world champion wasn’t only special for Pouncey, who had won the PDRL Grand Finals Day with Rhinos months earlier. 

Grand Finals Day 2022 was a special day for Leeds Rhinos in PDRL

“One of the best things about that World Cup was being stood at the side of the pitch and watching Harvey and his dad cry.”

Pouncey’s Rhinos teammate Harvey Redmonds grew up never being able to play his dad’s favourite sport.

“We’ve found this opportunity for Harvey to play rugby league and also be the best in the world and to see them crying. It felt incredibly special, like one of those Disney moments.

“I was just incredibly happy that out of my disability story there’s something positive. You know, I wouldn’t be world champion if I wasn’t disabled.”

A PDRL Grand Finals Day winner with Leeds Rhinos. A PDRL World Cup winner with England.

Tommy Pouncey may have multiple sclerosis. But he hasn’t let that stop him living his life to the fullest.

Pouncey says he wants rugby to be a game for everyone