Teenage reject Willis finally gets his England chance

LONDON (Reuters) - Ten years after having his 13-year-old heart broken by rejection from the London Irish academy, flanker Jack Willis is about to complete the most uplifting of turnarounds after being selected to make his England debut against Georgia on Saturday.

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Premiership Semi Final - Wasps v Bristol Bears - Ricoh Arena, Coventry, Britain - October 10, 2020 Wasps' Jack Willis in action with Bristol Bears' Callum Sheedy Action Images/Andrew Boyers

It is a just, and somewhat overdue, reward for the most outstanding player in the English game over the last year and no doubt all the more satisfying coming after that teenage confidence knock and then another setback, when injury curtailed his first England involvement two years ago.

Identifying young sporting talent is an imperfect art but those coaches who put an X by the side of Willis’s name must be kicking themselves on a daily basis.

“For a year after that I pretty much fell out of love with the game - it’s quite a lot of pressure to put on a 13-year-old,” Willis told The Guardian last month.

He returned to the game via a club local to his Reading home, eventually joined Wasps, and was on the crest of a wave when Eddie Jones picked him to tour South Africa in the summer of 2018. However, a serious knee injury put paid to that, and most of the following season, to again leave Willis wondering if the international dream was over.

Once again, however, adversity became the driver as he returned better and stronger and last season went on to reach extraordinary heights by amassing 46 turnovers, more than twice as many as any other player in the league.

His efforts helped Wasps to the English Premiership final and also earned him both Premiership player of the year awards.

That was not enough for Willis to force his way into the 23 to face Italy two weeks ago but, finally, Jones seems to have remembered what he liked two years ago.

“He’s come into camp since the Premiership final and trained very well,” the England coach said after announcing the team on Thursday. “He’s got a great attitude and we feel he deserves the opportunity.”

Openside flanker is now an area of strength for England but Willis has an extraordinary ability to spread his weight so he can get low enough to support himself while challenging at the breakdown but still be set too strongly to be moved off the ball.

That strength, athleticism and flexibility, combined with instant decision making, is a priceless commodity in the modern game where turnover ball is king but where the jackler is always a split second away from conceding a penalty.

“That (turnovers) is the highlight part of his game but he’s a good defender and he’s an attacker that gets his hands on the ball,” Jones said.

“I think he’s got a good nose for the ball, he gets himself into good positions, he’s got good natural strength - he’s not a gym-strength person - and he’s flipping tough.”

Reporting by Mitch Phillips, Editing by Ken Ferris