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News > Rugbeian News > When called up, media asked, 'Who is Will Rowlands?' Now they know

When called up, media asked, 'Who is Will Rowlands?' Now they know

The lock has proved a revelation and a is key member of Warren Gatland's World Cup squad, David Walsh writes

On a brisk March day in Oxford ten years ago, I first met Will Rowlands. His mum and my sister were friends and so there were four of us sitting down to lunch. All I knew was that he was bright and in his third year of his economics and management degree. Econ and M, as the course is known, is among the most prestigious at Oxford. Graduates, often starting out at banks in the City, command impressive salaries.

All Will wanted to talk about, though, was rugby. He’d been at Rugby School, where he’d played to a decent level. England Schools? No. England Schools’ trials? No. Wales never knew he existed, had no idea about his Welsh background.

County rugby? No. County rugby trials? No. But he knew boys at Rugby that had been sent to trials. During a gap year before university he worked on building sites and then spent a few months with the Northampton Saints development squad.

Before setting up home for his first term as a fresher at Pembroke College, something unusual happened. Someone from the Northampton academy got in touch with the university rugby club and told them about Rowlands. As in, “You might want to get this kid in for pre-season training.”

He played in the Varsity match in his second and third years and was part of the winning team both times. At Oxford he was a student first, rugby player second. He went to Rugby on an academic scholarship and while working his way through Oxford, the idea of a rugby career almost crept up on him. He loved the game, enjoyed the team environment and sensed that he’d barely skimmed the surface of his potential. Shouldn’t he try?

What were the options? I asked that day. “There is a post-grad course here at Oxford that I’d like to get on to, but I’d also like to give rugby a shot.”

I suggested that if he really wanted to find out how far he could go in rugby, then he should go for it. As it turned out, he didn’t get on to the course and Wasps offered him a chance to try professional rugby. He said yes to Wasps and did his post-grad at the University of Warwick. Two birds, one stone.

We’re now sitting in a quiet corner of the foyer at the Vale Resort in Glamorgan, where the Wales team have their training centre. Physically, the 31-year-old lock has changed. He’s much bigger. The boyish expression has survived, almost as if he’s still on a post-university sabbatical before he begins his real life at a bank in the City.

Gently he speaks about the early years at Wasps and dealing with the sense that for an intelligent lad, he wasn’t being very sensible.

“I wasn’t playing every week for Wasps and was a bit frustrated, thinking my other mates are getting started in their careers,” he says. “Am I going to be left behind?

“And if rugby doesn’t work out, all you’re going to have is lost time. Am I doing the right thing here? I remember keenly feeling caught between two paths.”

What he hadn’t understood was the gulf between university rugby and the Premiership. It took him three seasons to feel comfortable and he only became a regular starter in his fourth season. What kept him going?

“The feedback from the coaches and from Dai Young [the former director of rugby] was really positive,” he says. “They kept putting me on longish contracts, never allowed me to get anywhere near the end of whatever deal I was on. And I kind of thought, ‘At least they want me to stay around,’ and there was a plan. It was just frustrating that it wasn’t happening as quickly as I wanted it to.”

Now he wouldn’t change a thing. “I loved my time at Oxford,” he says. “It was hugely important to developing me as a person and the friends I’ve got from it, and the wider-world experience. Rugby exists in a bubble. No matter where you are it’s kind of the same thing. Having any opportunity to get outside that and have those few years where you’re a real student, not a student dividing his time between attending classes and being full-time at an academy.”

I ask for one standout experience from Oxford and it’s half-student, half-rugby. “First year we [the rugby club] went on a short pre-season tour to Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, which was pretty eye-opening. We played and lost to the Krasnoyarsk team, but it was just a weird place to go. Like a Soviet dystopia.”

What does a Soviet dystopia look like? “Architecturally massive apartment blocks with loads of space before the next apartment block. Huge amount of single buildings and infrastructure, but seemingly no people. And then some funny post-match events. Nights out in Krasnoyarsk were very different from what you’d got used to in the Western world.”

He says he can’t remember the details. This is what entering the rugby bubble does to the memory. I press him and he offers up a little.

“There was one guy in our group who had a tendency to, I guess, get a few things wrong,” he says. “He’d probably had a few drinks and got himself thrown out of this nightclub. We went to check that he was OK and found him surrounded by a group of armed policemen, heavily armed policemen with machine guns pointing at him. You’re thinking, ‘This is definitely not Oxford.’ ”

His dad, Jeremy, is Welsh and he grew up in an Oxfordshire home that on rugby days leant towards Wales. That was, in part, because of his Welsh grandparents, Colin and Barbara. On Six Nations days, the house was full and cheering for Wales.

By the time he’d cracked it at Wasps, Wayne Pivac, the Wales head coach at the time, wanted him in his squad. He moved from Wasps to the Dragons, so that he would have every chance to become a regular in the Welsh shirt, and was called into the squad for the 2020 Six Nations.

“Who is Will Rowlands, the shock Wales call-up for Six Nations no one had thought of,” was the headline on Wales Online. He made his debut against France the next month.

He has been a minor revelation in his 25 Tests. His contribution is defined by his work rate. Good at the lineout, he carries the ball well and makes a lot of tackles. When the first international call-up came, he thought about the World Cup and hoped that one day, he’d get there. Now he gets his chance. I think back to that lunch in Oxford ten years ago and wonder what advice I’d have offered if we knew then what we know now about head impacts.

“I think about that now,” he says. “There are two things. One, I have faith in the medical teams and the progress that’s been made, and I completely sympathise with the group of players who now have effects from concussions and repeat concussions. I believe the protocols they brought in are now allowing players to recover properly from concussions.

“The other thing I would say, and this is obviously caveated with trying not to do anything that destroys your mind or body, but many of the things in life that you take a lot of pleasure from, come with risks. You can wrap yourself in cotton wool, but if you do I think you’ll miss out on 85 per cent of what makes life so exciting.”

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