Friday 19 July 2019

'I never became disillusioned with rugby,' insists Wade as he gears up for NFL

Christian Wade: ‘I’ve made sacrifices for this. I haven’t left rugby for a glamorous lifestyle. It’s not about the money’. Photo: Getty
Christian Wade: ‘I’ve made sacrifices for this. I haven’t left rugby for a glamorous lifestyle. It’s not about the money’. Photo: Getty

Charlie Morgan

If his life had taken a different path, Christian Wade would currently be ensconced with the England rugby union squad, fine-tuning his preparations for their World Cup warm-up matches. As it is, he is about to make his competitive debut in the National Football League as a Buffalo Bills running back and return specialist.

Eight months ago, at the age of 27, Wade called time on a prolific rugby career. Only two men could boast more than his haul of 82 Premiership tries, but there were no ties to Eddie Jones's national set-up and he held ambitions further afield. A place on the NFL's International Player Programme beckoned, and so his focus is on the Bills' forthcoming pre-season rather than Japan.

"I never became disillusioned with rugby," says Wade, as evasive and exciting a runner as English rugby has seen in the past decade. "For me, it was all about my own personal goals and what I wanted to achieve as an athlete.

"I wasn't going to be able to develop as an athlete more than I already had done, so I wanted to explore other options. Those were inside of rugby first of all. I looked at Japan, at Australia and France, where I could have potentially earned some more money. It would have been a new culture, a new team. I'd been at Wasps my whole career."

Uproot Christian Scotland-Williamson's move from Worcester Warriors to the Pittsburgh Steelers also demonstrates how promising rugby players will uproot to pursue an NFL opportunity. One of Wade's class-mates at a boot camp in Florida was former rugby league star Valentine Holmes, who had 13 Australia caps and had made a handful of State of Origin appearances for Queensland.

Holmes, another example of the International Player Programme's allure, has been assigned to the New York Jets. He is attempting to crack the same roles as Wade, who believes his new sport, and a purely offensive focus, suits him.

"In the game of rugby, you have to be able to run for a long period of time," he says. "You have to sprint when you need to sprint, to make tackles. There's a certain type of athlete you need to be.

"In the NFL, speed and power is pretty much all that is required. I've put on size now - I weigh 198lb - and I've increased my power. I'm just as fast, and I'm keen to keep increasing that. Those are some physiological changes. On the mental side, I'm having to learn, to install so many plays. I'm working my brain in a way I've probably never worked it."

The transition has not been straightforward. Wade, an instinctively laid-back, engaging character, admits that a slow process of appreciating and implementing American football's intricacies, without any prior grounding in the sport, has made "every day a tough day". He has been studying a vast playbook, adapting to pads and helmets and honing his ability to weave between blockers. That is before you account for practical concerns, such as giving up an annual wage of more than £200,000.

"I left my team-mates and the team I've known since the age of 15," he says. "I went from a really good salary to no salary. When I left rugby, I didn't have an income. I was using savings, trying to earn extra bits here and there, asking my parents to help out.

"I went into a camp with the Bills, where you get paid by week, a small amount to keep you going. These are the sacrifices I've incurred making this move. I haven't left rugby for a glamorous lifestyle. It's not about the money."

Wade reports on July 22 to the Bills' training camp, where he will strive to make a 53-man franchise roster. Playing in a full NFL match would be a big achievement for a late starter, regardless of his athletic gifts. A special team slot, in which he can replicate the electric kick-returns of his rugby days, may be the best window to impress.

During a fortnight-long visit to the UK, Wade has checked into Tottenham Stadium - venue for two NFL games later this year - to witness the final try-outs for the NFL Academy's first intake. From September, the academy will allow 16- to 18-year-olds to combine their education with American football training. The initiative should provide a route for teenagers to win places at US colleges and arrive with a strong grounding in gridiron.

Four years ago, Wade was omitted from Stuart Lancaster's 50-man Rugby World Cup training squad. A week later, he responded with three tries as an England XV thrashed the Barbarians 73-12. That seemed to sum up his misfortune in terms of international selection. Yet, asked to compare his outlook in the summer of 2015 with this next adventure, he dwells on the positive.

"I scored a hat-trick and we terrorised the Barbarians," Wade recalls. "Now I'm in the best shape of my life, about to go into a camp with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. I'm on the same level of excitement. This time it's an anxious excitement. I'm not sure what is in store for me, but I'm going to have a good time."

Irish Independent

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