Aaron Wainwright takes path from muddy Whitehead to fields of dreams | Sport

There are a lot of Welshmen who dreamed of playing in a match like this back when they were kids. But Aaron Wainwright, who will, was not one of them. When he was little he wanted to be a professional footballer. He spent six years in Cardiff FC’s academy, learning to be a defensive midfielder, “a Roy Keane type, I loved to get stuck in”.

They dropped him when he was 16. Newport County offered him a scholarship but he did not want to move from Bassaleg School. Instead he decided to take up another invitation, from his mates who asked him to come play a game of rugby with them down at Whitehead.

That was six years ago. The last time Wales played in the knockout rounds of the World Cup, that oh-so-close four-point loss to the Springboks in the quarter‑finals in 2015, it would have seemed impossible to him, and everyone else, that he would be playing for them now. Back then they had a back row of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau, one of the finest combinations Wales have put together, all in their 20s then, but none of them made it to Japan. It tells you a lot about Wainwright’s gifts that Wales have been able to get by without them, and even more about Warren Gatland’s.

Gatland called up Wainwright in the summer of 2018. Wainwright should have been playing for Cardiff Metropolitan University, where he was studying for a sport science degree. He had been plugging away for the student XV, training two nights a week and fitting in a team run between lectures.

He spent his Wednesdays galloping around in Bucs Super Rugby, and his Saturday “up to my knees in mud” getting “beaten up by big men” in the WRU Championship, away days at “Glynneath, Narberth Bedlinog, the sort of places you don’t want to go to”.

Everything changed in September 2017, the day he had to give a coaching demonstration as part of his coursework. He received a phone call while he was waiting to go in from the Dragons head coach, Bernard Jackman. The club had suffered a sudden run of injuries and needed him on the bench for their game against the Southern Kings in the Pro 14.

He did not go on, but did the next week, for the last 10 minutes of a 14-point defeat at the Cardiff Blues. “That was a massive step for me,” he says. “It was then I realised it was going to be a lot more serious than I thought it would be.”

Wainwright ended up playing 25 games for the Dragons that season. The summer after it was over, Gatland gave him 30 minutes at the end of a Test against Argentina in San Juan. He made his first start against Tonga that November and since then he has featured in every Test as a starter or a replacement.

Wainwright has 17 international caps to his name. Photograph: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans/REX/Shutterstock

In two years, Wainwright has gone from the university first XV to being man of the match in a World Cup quarter-final against France. If you had told him then that how his life was going to play out he says he would have laughed.

A lot of his friends still are. “I’m still very friendly with a lot of the boys and they can’t believe how far I’ve come.”

A bunch of his old university teammates wanted to come over to support him but their student loans could not cover the airfare. Instead he will go and watch them as soon as he is home. “I can’t wait to get back and watch them playing on a Wednesday night.”

Because it is all so close, his ties to the community are pretty tight. He still does a lot of coaching down at Whiteside, using what he learned on his degree course. He was there working with them the night before he flew out to Japan. “Having that relationship is massive. The support they give me as well helps me every week.

“Some players come through a system in which they are put in an academy from a young age don’t get that relationship with a grassroots club. I was very fortunate that my local club welcomed me with both arms and I’ve still got a very good relationship with them.”

It means he has his feet on the ground, which is one reason why Warburton has suggested Wainwright may make a good captain. Gatland has already persuaded him to take on a leadership role and in the quarter‑final against France you could see him barking orders to teammates.

Some of this success is natural talent. His father was a flanker too, for Caerphilly and some is what he has done with it; he was 80kg when he went to university but the Dragons wanted him to bulk up, so he worked his way up to 104kg in the next 18 months.

But more of it is down to the system Gatland has created. There is a reason they have been able to make it this far even after they have lost key players to injuries and it is because they can spot the potential in a player such as Wainwright and given him everything he needs to help him fulfil it.


Source link : https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/oct/26/aaron-wainwright-wales-south-africa-rugby-world-cup

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Publish date : 2019-10-26 21:00:00

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