here are three main reasons why a depleted Wasps still believe they can surprise the newly-minted European champions Exeter in this year’s Premiership final. The first is the fine run of form that has seen them lose only one of their last 13 matches. Equally significant, they feel, is the squad’s collective bond, further tightened over the past week by the club’s disruptive Covid-19 issues.
And the third? Anyone predicting last Christmas that a 23-year-old uncapped flanker from a club languishing in the league’s bottom three would scoop all of this season’s major individual honours would have been laughed out of the pub. Ten months later everyone knows about Jack Willis and English rugby has a bona fide new shooting star.
Every outing is the day of the jackal when Willis is around. His season total of 44 turnovers is so far ahead of the competition they called off the pursuit long ago. When he bends over the top of a ruck, with his low centre of gravity and incredible flexibility, it is like watching a praying mantis at work. Once he decides to compete for a ball the outcome is seldom in doubt.
It feels almost superfluous to suggest a lengthy England career awaits him when the evidence of his rare talent is so glaringly obvious. If you were going to invent a back-row player ideally suited to the punishing modern game and the present law interpretations, the all-action Willis would be your prototype. Die hard, with a vengeance, pretty much sums up his approach around the tackle area.
Not bad for a kid who was rejected by London Irish in his early teens and did not attend any of the fashionable private schools that like to syphon off the country’s best age-group talent. Instead Willis, who hails from the outskirts of Reading, is a classic example of a player forced to make his own way into the game, via Abbey RFC and Henley College, who has emerged the better for it.
It is probably necessary to go all the way back to Lawrence Dallaglio – and I can feel James Haskell reading over my shoulder here – to find an England-born Wasps back-rower with such an endearing attitude, a more open and refreshing manner or a better-stocked professional toolbox. Not only can Willis run and hit rucks all day but, outside rugby, he already also has a plumbing and heating diploma and is the co-director of a property agency.
When you add in his hat-trick of recent accolades – the RPA’s player’s player award, the Premiership’s Player of the Season and Land Rover “Discovery of the Season” – it is not a bad CV to be dangling in front of the national coach, Eddie Jones, even with England’s already strong back row options. Willis is a year older than Tom Curry and a year younger than Sam Underhill and looks ready to join them both in a white jersey soon.
Jones has already picked him once, for the tour to South Africa in 2018, only for a serious knee injury sustained in a Premiership semi-final against Saracens to intervene. Not only has Willis bounced back stronger and better – he diverts much of the credit to Wasps’ breakdown coach Matt Everard – but his freakish flexibility is no accident. “I saw some article that apparently said I did ballet, which is a load of rubbish. It’s actually down to the fact I played a lot of football when I was about eight or nine. One of the coaches in our age-group was really big on making sure we stretched before sessions and some of the guys were saying: ‘Look how flexible you are.’ I thought: ‘OK then I’ll keep stretching.’ It just kind of evolved from there. Now I know it’s a crucial part of my game and I’ve got to maintain and try and improve it.”
Inevitably, he is now finding an increasing number of opponents are keen to test him out in other respects. “In the last few weeks I’ve felt like there have been more aggressive clean-outs and I’ve been feeling more targeted in games. It’s understandable. You’ve also got guys like Thomas Young and Joe Launchbury … every team prepping against us would look at that.” Increasingly, though, he is learning the ideal moments to strike. “For me it’s about constantly improving my decision-making. Opportunities will come up here or there and it’s about pouncing on the right ones.”
Whoever it was at London Irish who, when Willis was 13, decided he had no chance of becoming a professional player must be feeling pretty sick these days. Willis, whose brother Tom is also highly rated at Wasps, admits it almost turned him off rugby. “It’s such an early age for people to be making those sort of decisions. For a year after that I pretty much fell out of love with the game.” In his view, late developers need more encouragement. “It’s quite a lot of pressure to put on a 13-year-old. Opportunities will come later in life. Look at someone like Will Rowlands who is now such an influential player for us. He didn’t start playing full-time professional rugby until after his degree at Oxford. It just shows those opportunities are still going to be there, no matter what age you are, as long as you’re enjoying your rugby and keep working hard.”
As he freely admits – “I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a few moments when you thought ‘The dream is over’” – recent days have been tough for all at Wasps, blindsided by 11 positive Covid test results before they were belatedly cleared to play the final this week. The antidote will be to conjure up more of the freewheeling magic that, against sizeable odds, has propelled them this far. As Willis warns: “Young lads might think we will have a final every couple of years but it doesn’t work like that. We have to take these opportunities.”
Win or lose, it will still be a season the young flanker never forgets. “When I’m grey and old and my legs are hanging on I’ll be quite proud. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks with the awards and the Covid ups and downs. I’d also be lying, though, if I didn’t say I would trade all of the awards to win the Premiership trophy this weekend.”