FORMER Newport Gwent Dragons captain Tom Willis has retired because of a thumb injury, bringing an early end to his four-season spell with the region.
The 32-year-old hooker has been out of action since October’s loss to Treviso when he suffered a recurrence of a problem that sidelined him last season.
Willis, capped five times by New Zealand, was out of contract this summer and was not going to be offered a new deal.
However, a settlement has been agreed and he is no longer on the Dragons’ books. He said: “Regrettably I have been advised that a successful return to the pitch is unlikely and ultimately could lead to me having significant problems with my hand in the future.
“I have had a great time with the Dragons and will always cherish memories of typical Newport Friday nights, fantastic Rodney Parade crowds and playing alongside a great bunch of guys.
“I’m very grateful and proud for the opportunity to be a Dragon and the support that everyone here and our fans have shown me over the past four years.” Willis, who played Super 12 rugby for the Highlanders and Chiefs, was signed by the Dragons in 2008 and was immediately made captain, a role he held for three seasons.
He played 28 times in an impressive first campaign but injuries took their toll and it was downhill from there in terms of appearances, his final tally being 63.
But the Dragons hierarchy stress that the New Zealander’s influence cannot be measured purely by that statistic.
“We are really disappointed for Tom,” said head coach Darren Edwards. “His contribution should not be underestimated.
“He had been a key figure in changing the mindset and attitude of the team whilst helping our squad raise their ambitions. He has demonstrated an extraordinary work ethic and strong leadership at Rodney Parade and I have to say he is probably the most stand-up player I have ever worked with.”
The departure of Willis along with fellow big-earners Luke Charteris, who is bound for France, and Ben Castle, whose contract also expires at the end of the season, will leave the Dragons with plenty of room for manoeuvre for recruitment.