Will Stuart is ready to take on Australia as England’s senior tighthead prop but the early stages of his conversion from fly-half left him questioning if the future mapped out in the front row was doomed to failure.
Stuart’s memories of watching the 2003 and 2007 World Cups were not of scrummaging masterclasses by the likes of Phil Vickery or Andrew Sheridan, but of wanting to emulate Jonny Wilkinson’s brilliance as ringmaster.
Initially resistant to leaving the backs, it was only when a school coach told him that prop was his solitary route into professional rugby that he agreed to fill the number three jersey.
And early experiences as a Wasps academy prospect sent out on loan to second-tier clubs Blackheath, Nottingham and Coventry confirmed his worst fears over life at the coalface as he was schooled by a series of gnarly veterans.
“When I started playing men’s rugby I was horrendous at scrummaging. Terrible,” said the 25-year-old, who is set to start Saturday’s first Test against the Wallabies in Perth.
“I played in National One at Blackheath, I had my first ‘A’ league game there and I genuinely thought the five-metre push rule was still there.
“So they drove me over about 10 metres for a push-over try and I was complaining to the ref because I had no idea that the rule had stopped. I was dreadful for a good year and a half.
“I played against one experienced prop at Coventry, I nearly got red-carded for scrum infringements. The ref said ‘one more penalty and you’re getting red-carded’, so they subbed me off after 24 minutes.
“I was getting booed by the Coventry fans and they then realised that I was an academy player at Wasps so I was getting absolutely heckled.
“At that point, I was like ‘I don’t think I can be a prop, there’s no way I’m going to be good enough’. I had a few of those afternoons.”
At a time when the second division of English club rugby is fighting for survival amid cuts in funding, Stuart has only praise for what he views as an important development tool for young props looking to break into a Premiership starting XV.
“Specifically for front-rowers, there is a real value to going out on loan because you need to go into the cauldron a bit,” Stuart said.
“As a prop, your reps in training will be more limited so you just need to play as much as possible. I found the Championship so hard because I was having to improve at scrums and I found the Premiership easier because I’d been through that.”
The series opener against the Wallabies in Perth will be the first time Stuart has played outside of Europe at any level but as an avid watcher of any Ashes series, the rivalry with Australia is deeply ingrained.
Only four of his 20 caps have been starts due to the presence of Kyle Sinckler, but a back injury has forced the Bristol forward to remain at home.
“The tone has got to start in the engine room with set-piece, around the ruck, carries and tackling,” Stuart said.
“A big thing we’ve been speaking about was that 2016 was England’s first series win in Australia, so this is a chance to come out and be part of a second series win.
“It doesn’t happen often in cricket or any sport coming down to Australia, so especially as a front-five group that is something we’ve been quite excited about – getting stuck into it.”
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