Wednesday 13 December 2017

Wilson busy keeping the dream alive

David Kelly

David Kelly

It was only after he pressed the little red button on his phone that Roger Wilson felt the wrench in his stomach.

Had he made the right choice? Should he have said yes, rather than no? Would he call back and ask for more time?

Instead, he did none of these things. Life, after all, is merely a series of decisions. So the 29-year-old spurned a return to his Ulster heartland and remained in an English midlands town where there's nothing else to do except play rugby.

He need not have fretted. It was the right call because it was his call. Northampton's continued progress under their sage coach Jim Mallinder and a maturing squad gilded his preference.

"It was a tough decision," admits the No 8, acutely aware that staying in England would remove him even further from his dream of playing in a World Cup for his country. "But I'm enjoying life here, the team is going well and we're improving all the time. So I decided to stay. It might have been a help to my international career but I felt it was a bit of a risk at this stage.

"When I joined Northampton, they were still in the first division. I could have joined London Irish at the time but I decided to take a risk. We've won two trophies in my time here, we're consistently making the knock-out stages of the two main trophies so I'm obviously happy with the way everything has worked out."

Nearly everything, you remind him. Ireland's call remains a distant echo. He didn't make it over to Carton House to fill in the World Cup registration forms with the other cast of thousands as his side had just been bashed up by Perpignan in their Heineken Cup semi-final.

His old Ulster coach Alan Solomons can't believe how he hasn't played for Ireland since his last undignified exit in green -- a neat but nasty headbutt in the 2006 Churchill Cup.

There is mention of the perennial Neil Best rant -- when we spoke last year, Best had left a voicemail on Declan Kidney's phone berating the absence of rugby's wild geese from the Irish set-up; a fortnight ago, he was at it again in print. Wilson smiles at the touchingly over-wrought camaraderie shown by his former colleague.

"The last time I spoke to Declan was before the Six Nations squad was announced," he explains, not wearily, but calmly. "I was a bit disappointed. I'm not holding my breath. Playing in big games like this can only be a help. But I don't know what he's thinking, to be honest.

"There has been a lot more feedback. Declan is good in that sense. He always has the phone open, he'll give you an explanation.

"Who knows what's going on behind the scenes. It's not for me to say there's a policy of not picking players from England but it's clear to see that it doesn't help. Not being in Ireland camps doesn't help. But playing in a team that's doing well in the Premiership and the Heineken Cup, hopefully it will not do any harm."


Whatever about his choice to remain at Northampton, his role on the pitch involves a micro-management of a series of important decisions as one of the team's executive decision-makers behind the scrum.

He feels his team have made giant strides in that area, particularly after the double disappointment of losing twice to Munster in last season's Heineken Cup competition, culminating in the 33-19 quarter-final loss, a defeat that compounded the 12-9 reverse in the final game of the pool stages when they had the two-time champions on the ropes.

"Against Munster we didn't have a vast amount of experience of being at the knock-out stages, never mind at Thomond Park," he admits. "A year on, our guys have gained a lot of experiences, with England too. Also, that game with Munster stood us in good stead when it came to beating Ulster this year.

"We learned you really have to play every second of the game, if you switch off at all, that can be game over. The intensity is bigger than anything you experience week in, week out in the Premiership. Physically, it won't be a problem for us this weekend, it's the mental side we have to worry about."

He decries the one-dimensional description of his side as 'straight up the middle merchants', relying on mere grunt and back-three finishing power. But it's a successful formula, once his side can get quick ball and gain a front foot in the scrum, their most powerful asset.

"Leinster are favourites solely on how they've played over the last three years. They've had the tougher route to the final and they've played better teams so they're expected to be favourites. But we know in an 80-minute final, anything can happen. We're one of the top teams that knows how to produce a special performance.

"Certainly the front-five is going to be a massive key for us and we'll be targeting that area because we don't think Leinster have been challenged to the extent that maybe we can manage. If there is any area for us, that may be it.

"We've actually won games based on our scrum alone. We know that if we can get on top there, and in around the maul area, it can deliver a big psychological blow. There is the image of us painted in the press of just being a 'straight up the middle' team, then get around the corners. A lot of teams take notice of that and do video analysis of that.


"I can't give much away but in big games like this, you want to throw in a couple of surprises that the opposition won't have seen coming. We've been working on that during the week. Hopefully, we'll not be as predictable as most teams think we are.

"Having said that, rugby is a pretty simple game. The breakdown is going to be key. If we get quick ball, there's no need to play that complicated, really."

Wilson will be the first Ulster man to play in a final since the province's 1999 triumph, which he attended as a fifth-year student in RBAI.

"Witnessing that wonderful day gave me the ambition to play on that stage," he says. "I spent six years at Ulster trying to get as far as we could but it never happened. I used to envy that '99 team and unfortunately it never happened with them. But at least I got there in the end. I want to win it now."

All his career choices have led to this moment.

Irish Independent

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